Sea beet – Identification, distribution, edibility

Beta Vulgaris

Sea Beet

Sea Beet

  • Edibility – 4/5  – leaves – smaller ones are best
  • Identification – 4/5
  • Distribution – 3/5
  • Season – All year, but best when not flowering and can be a bit below par in January/February
  • Habitat – upper beach,coastal defences and waste ground adjacent to coast

sea beet sun, shore

Sea beet is an aristocrat in the world of wild greens. Like many true aristocrats, it has an unkempt appearance that belies its pedigree. Look for glossy, oval to diamond shaped leaves in unruly rosettes on the foreshore and in about sea defences. Its genes have been tamed and refined down the ages to give us many varieties of beetroot, sugar beet, chard, spinach and lots more, so it should seem familiar. You can occasionally see the purple colouration from which beetroot was selectively bred in the young leaves.

Young sea beet leaves, showing purple markings

Young sea beet leaves, showing purple markings

Variety is great, but I don’t think we have ever improved on the original. You can really taste its pedigree if you boil, blanch, steam, wilt or eat raw the succulent leaves. They have superior flavour, texture and nutrient content to any of their progeny. If you like spinach, you will absolutely love  sea beet. Leaves are at their best in spring, but remain delicious pretty much throughout the year. Careful cropping of a few leaves per plant, and still further restraint during winter, should allow for a steady supply.

I enjoy it in soups, tarts, salads, with fish and lamb. It makes for a very good saag aloo.

saag aloo made with sea beet, scurvy grass, coriander grass and gorse buds

saag aloo made with sea beet, scurvy grass, coriander grass and gorse buds

Sea beet is a fairly common plant, with glossy green colonies locally abundant in some areas. That said, I would urge you to leave solo specimens alone, and spread your picking around well established plants where they proliferate.

I absolutely love the contradictory nature of these plants which manage to be unruly in their growth, while exhibiting pristine, glossy leaves which actually squeak as you pick them. It also often grows in spectacular locations with waves breaking at it and spindrift tumbling across its stalwort glossy greens. Magnificent!

sea beet storm sea

3 Comments

  • Brian Thair says:

    Hi Retired botany professor. Taught some economic botany. Mentioned modern derivative varieties from Sea Beet = Beta vulgaris (lower case ‘v’ is proper, please.) Is seed available? I’d like to grow some, if I could. Possibly potted so I can bring them in for the winter. Can be -30C some nights.

    • mark says:

      Hi, Busy foraging teacher.
      Good manners is proper, please.
      As a botany professor, is it not possible for you to gather some seed yourself?
      I don’t supply and i’m not a gardener.
      Regards,
      Mark.

  • Brian Thair says:

    I’m in British Columbia. I notice that I can obtain several varieties (cultivars?) of “leaf beet” seed but the original is of greater interest. Has anyone attempted to cultivate the original inland? Are these plants perennials?

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