by Matt Gibson
Orache is making waves in culinary circles as a superfood that has been widely ignored for years in favor of its more popular cousins, spinach and quinoa. Want to grow some orache in your own garden? Now that the world is getting caught up on the many healthy benefits of orache, seed sales have risen to an all-time high, and the orache plant, which was once only cultivated as an ornamental by gardeners, is now being harvested and enjoyed in salads and more.
There are a lot of reasons why orache is becoming more popular. Now being touted as a superfood, orache is packed full of nutrients, such as phosphorus, iron, zinc, selenium, calcium, magnesium, protein, anthocyanins, vitamin C, vitamin K, carotene, tryptophan, and dietary fiber. Nutritionists boast of the many health benefits of orache, claiming that the offshoot of spinach is good for digestive health and stimulation. Researchers have also linked orache with maintaining heart health and low blood pressure levels as well boasting its immune boosting, anti-inflammatory, and anti-carcinogenic properties. Aside from its nutritional value, the most common form of orache, red mountain spinach, is also a fantastic addition to gardens, in beds, borders, and even in bouquets as a cut flower. When cooked, orache is said to have a slightly salty, slightly mineral flavor, with just a hint of fennel taste.
The entire plant is a sight to behold. Every inch is covered in a unique red to purple hue with vertical flower clusters adorned with tiny reddish-purple flowers. The blooms themselves don’t really stand out from the plant, as the blooms and foliage are most often the exact same shade. However, with it’s bright reddish-purple palette and hefty plant size (growing up to four feet tall and two feet wide very quickly), orache draws the eye of admirers anyway.
Its lush color makes orache a vibrant background standout. As most garden enthusiasts are used to seeing flowers highlighted with vibrant green backgrounds, the red/purple combo works as a breath of fresh air. A native of Asia and Europe, orache has also been widely naturalized and spread across Canada, America, Australia, and New Zealand.
Varieties of Orache
Commonly known as mountain spinach, the orache plant is a member of the family Chenopodiaceae, which includes many edible plants, including beets, spinach, chard, and quinoa. Orache is sometimes called salt bush because of its preference for alkaline soils and its slightly salty taste.
There are only four varieties of orache. White orache, which is the most commonly grown, is usually a greenish-yellow plant. Red mountain spinach is most often a red to purplish hue and is the most common garden variety of orache because of its bright color. Green orache is much larger and more vigorous than other varieties, with rounder and darker leaves than the common white type. There is also a rarely grown and widely unknown copper-colored version of the plant, which has all but vanished from existence in common gardens. For the flower bed and the kitchen, however, we recommend growing red mountain spinach. The red hue is a tell-tale sign that the plant is rich in heart-healthy nutrients that will help your cardiovascular system function at peak levels.
Several lesser-known hybrids have been created to show off the diverse colors that orache can produce in a culinary application. The aurora variety is said to contain hints of all the various colors that orache can produce, including maroon, green, neon magenta, and electric chartreuse.
Growing Conditions for Orache
Orache grows best when given full sunlight exposure and cared for with well-watered and well drained soil. Relatively easy to grow when given the right conditions, red mountain spinach just needs frequent watering (especially in dry periods) and soil with plenty of drainage. Orache even grows heartily without a boost from fertilizers and will perform admirably in low quality soil. Of course, if you feed orache, it will do much better, growing voraciously and sprouting much more pleasant-tasting foliage. Treat orache just like you would spinach in USDA garden zones 4-8. Orache enjoys plenty of sun exposure, but partial shade in the afternoons in hot climates is recommended.
Because of the plant’s tolerance to drought, frost, and alkaline soil conditions as well as its general resistance to diseases and pests, orache is becoming somewhat of a fixture in modern gardens. If you don’t have access to outdoor garden beds, or your plots are already full, orache also grows well in containers.
How To Plant Orache
Sow seeds in full sun to partial shade about two to three weeks after the final frost in your area. Plant seeds one-quarter to one-half inch deep in the soil, about two inches apart, in rows spaced out between one foot and 18 inches. When germinating seeds, keep temperatures around 60-65 degrees Fahrenheit. You should see sproutings within the first one to two weeks of germination. Thin the seedlings to six to 12 inches apart in the rows. The thinnings can be put into a fresh wrap or salad or eaten like any other baby green. Seeds last for approximately five years.
Care for Orache
Aside from regular watering, orache needs very little care to flourish. Just be sure to provide plenty of sun and well-drained soil. The more the orache is irrigated, the better it will taste. Pinching off the flower heads and harvesting orache helps keep them expanding and creating new foliage, so in actuality, harvesting the leaves is part of the essential care for the plant. Read more about harvesting below.
Larger varieties of orache may need staking to stay upright in windy areas.
Garden Pests and Diseases of Orache
Orache is generally disease and garden pest resistant. There have been some reports of aphids gathering on the underside of orache leaves. Handle those pesky punks with a blast of direct water early in the morning. While you’re investigating, keep an eye out for the larvae of lady beetles and lacewings. Though not common, you may have to pull a few of them out of the soil around orache occasionally.
If your orache plants are tightly spaced, harvest them all the way down to one or two inches above the soil. Once they grow back up, you’re ready to harvest again for fresh salads and greens. If you thinned out your rows up to 12 inches apart early in the grow period, you could now choose to thin them up to 18 inches, or you can keep them as they are.
When harvesting from fully grown orache plants, wait until the plant has fully matured (usually about 30-40 days), then leave the older leaves in place and begin regularly harvesting the younger leaves so that the orache stays healthy and focused on new growth. Pinch off flower buds to encourage branching and promote new growth. Harvesting can continue after the summer once the plant has bolted (or gone to seed). One gardener and chef said that he liked the flavor of his orache even better after it had bolted, and he found that the leaves, though smaller, tended to stay crisp and fresh in water far longer than most common greens.
The seeds of the orache plant can be harvested as well, and they are a great natural source of vitamin A. Grind the seeds into a meal, and mix with flour in recipes to make a delicious orache seed bread.
Using Orache for Indoor Bouquets
Orache is also popularly used as a cut flower for indoor bouquets. The flower enjoys a seven-day shelf life after the cutting if cared for properly (changing water daily, time release feeding) so it’s no surprise to see it indoors, bringing a luxurious mystique to dinner tables, windowsills, and living rooms around the world. As orache’s flowers don’t tend to stand out as much as other plants, pair Orache in a vase with bright flowers that have green foliage and pronounced blooms (preferably in yellow, orange or white, something that will stand out in a sea of red).
Want to Learn More About Orache?
Check out this tutorial video to find out how to grow orache successfully from seed:
Enjoy this video all about the red mountain spinach variety of orache: