On spinach, and sex

You know, I would say I trend more toward prude than its opposite, but, as a seed-saver and new poultry husbanding person, I have become more aware of sex in the flora and fauna around me.  There are two reasons for this, prudishness be damned:  one, I *need* to pay attention and two, birth/sex/death is really…not closeted in farm life.

So in the interest of the didyouknow, I will heretofore tell you that spinach is the only commonly cultivated annual vegetable that throws either male or female flowers.  I can just see your eyes glaze over as I reveal this tasty tidbit!  Wha? you say.  Well!  Most plants propagate by being a lot more AC/DC (that is, bisexual):  they circle back and forth between throwing male and female flowers, either to self-pollinate or to time the blossoming of the male flowers to correctly match up with the female flowers, with the pollen either being wind-blown or availing itself of a willing intermediary pollinator (birds, bees, etc.) between the male and female flowers.  Of course, it’s our human world that absolutely categorizes everything as “male” or “female,” and I think that’s where a lot of problems start, and not just for plants.

IMG_1696Male spinach with its tendrils, with female plants beyond

But back to spinach.  Either a seed produces a female plant, or it produces a male one.  If you let them go to seed, you hope for both to ensure yourself a nice set of happily fertilized ova.  And luckily nature does lend you a hand:  like most other species in the natural world, the chances of having either a male or female seed of two is roughly even.


Female spinach, with seeds

14 responses to “On spinach, and sex

  1. definitely something to know and tell. I just wish I could find a season my spinach would grow in without bolting

  2. As usual, El, you tell me things I need to know. It’s my first year growing spinach, and I’d like to save seed. I hadn’t a clue that spinach was so…so…straight, I suppose. Thanks!

  3. Well, I would never have guessed! This will make it interesting come seed saving time….Thanks for the info!

  4. “Of course, it’s our human world that absolutely categorizes everything as “male” or “female,” and I think that’s where a lot of problems start, and not just for plants.” That’s a really insightful comment, it goes back to Victorian prudishness. This whole business of what can be discussed or not and seeing the whole world thru this lens distorts our perspectives on the world.

    Perhaps it becomes even more true as a society is more urbanized, with fewer people living in close connection to the natural world. Hence the value of trying to get more people to garden, even try their hand at farming. Farm kids are much more knowledgeable about these matters and less restrained in talking about them. It’s just a part of life.

  5. Very cool.

    Are you isolated enough not to have to cage or separate your plants to save seed? I read _Seed to Seed_ and figure that my area is so dense I’d have to be very careful if I wanted anything that stayed close to true, especially with things like squashes.

    • Stefaneener, that is an interesting question. For the most part, I am in fruit-growing territory where nobody else grows veggies (plus, my nearest neighbor is 700′ away). It really depends on the plant I wish to isolate, though. Things like carrots and chickories compete with their wild cousins and there’s nothing I could do about that so I don’t save those seeds. Melons, squash, etc.: I grow too many of them myself to isolate them, though I still save the seeds: it depends on the type, so I will save zucchini one year and yellow squash the next, with a few freaks in Year 2. But other things like beets which need something like a mile of clear territory? If I grow them in the greenhouse (thus they bloom a lot earlier than any airborne pollen) then they’re fair game. It depends, I guess! If you really like something, though, go for it and save their seeds.

  6. oh… the things I miss by pulling out my spinach as it bolts!

  7. I’ve never grown spinach in my small garden in So Cal but even though I grew up in the burbs/ country of western NY I am ashamed to say I can never recall seeing a spinach plant in the field before.I had no idea they were so tall and upright.I always thought of spinach as a low growing bushy plant.

  8. Very interesting! I had no idea that spinach was the odd on out in the seed world. So I guess that when saving seed, it is a bit more chance-y, hoping the distribution is pretty equal.

  9. I couldn’t figure out last year, why only some of my spinach plants produced seed, and some only flowered and died. Thought something went wrong, or I somehow got some hybrid seed mixed in my row. But never looked any further into it. Thanks for straightening that one out!

  10. Isn’t that just like a male to be all “grabby” with its tendrils (arms?!) waving around like that while the female stands demurely off to the side 🙂 Great photo!

  11. I’m absolutely loving your blog! Your photographs are delightful!

  12. Ed, I have been having the same problem. I have about a month in the late winter greenhouse and then 2 months under my hillbilly shade cover outdoors in spring otherwise I content myself with eating weeds I mean lamb’s quarters.

    You’re welcome, Kate. It’s funny, isn’t it? And unlike lettuce these plants don’t get terribly large. Just make sure the plants are pretty dry before you cut them down and take their seeds.

    Petunia, well at least it would point you in the right direction: you won’t be getting many seeds from the male plants….

    Stef, well, you can always simply try to save the seeds from something; they might not be perfectly pure but goodness they might be even better than the original.

    Sylvie, hah! You have Ed’s problem too with things getting hot so soon, I would bet.

    John, yeah, when you see today’s post you’ll definitely see how big some biennials can get when they go to seed. You should see my beets: over 7′ easily. So these spinach are relatively puny at a mere 18″ tall.

    MC and even if the distribution isn’t equal you would still get plenty of seed if you have, say, 3 female plants to one male, as long as they’re adjacent to each other.

    Freija, you’re welcome! Yeah it puzzled me years ago too before I got hip to what was really going on.

    Blaithin, yeah, one could really go nuts if one started to look at all plants as a bit of a battle of the sexes thing. Though the tendrils do look so…hopeful!

    Jayme, great! Glad you like it…

  13. DennisP sounds a bit warped. Get a life. But, I wondered why my spinach leaves on two plants had different shapes. Male and female. Valuable information to me. I was looking up wondering if I bought two varieties of spinach. After this info, I guess it’s all the same variety. Thanks El

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