Chenopodium album

Chenopodium album

Chenopodium album is a fast-growing weedy annual plant in the genus Chenopodium. The standard English name is Fat-hen; other names include white goosefoot, lamb's quarters, pigweed or dungweed, or more ambiguously as just goosefoot.

Distribution

Its native range is obscure due to extensive cultivation, but includes most of Europe, from where Linnaeus described the species in 1753. Plants native in eastern Asia are included under C. album, but often differ from European specimens. It is widely introduced elsewhere, e.g. Africa, Australasia, North America, and Oceania, and now occurs almost everywhere in soils rich in nitrogen, especially on wasteland.

Botany

It tends to grow upright at first, reaching heights of 10-150 cm (rarely to 3 m), but typically becomes recumbent after flowering (due to the weight of the foliage and seeds) unless supported by other plants. The leaves are alternate and can be varied in appearance. The first leaves, near the base of the plant, are toothed and roughly diamond-shaped, 3-7 cm long and 3-6 cm broad. The leaves on the upper part of the flowering stems are entire and lanceolate-rhomboid, 1-5 cm long and 0.4-2 cm broad; they are waxy-coated, unwettable and mealy in appearance, with a whitish coat on the underside. The small flowers are radially symmetrical and grow in small cymes on a dense branched inflorescence 10-40 cm long.

Taxonomy

Chenopodium album has a very complex taxonomy and has been divided in numerous microspecies, subspecies and varieties, but it is difficult to differentiate between them. The following infraspecific taxa are accepted by the Flora Europaea:

  • Chenopodium album subsp. album
  • Chenopodium album subsp. striatum (Krašan) Murr
  • Chenopodium album var. reticulatum (Aellen) Uotila

Published names and synonyms include C. album var. microphyllum, C. album var. stevensii, C. acerifolium, C. centrorubrum, C. giganteum, C. jenissejense, C. lanceolatum, C. pedunculare and C. probstii.

It also hybridises readily with several other Chenopodium species, including C. berlandieri, C. ficifolium, C. opulifolium, C. strictum and C. suecicum.

Cultivation and uses

Food

The leaves and young shoots may be eaten as a leaf vegetable, either steamed in its entirety, or cooked like spinach, but should be eaten in moderation. Each plant produces tens of thousands of black seeds. These are high in protein, vitamin A, calcium, phosphorus, and potassium. Quinoa is a closely related species which is grown specifically for its seeds.

Archaeologists analysing carbonized plant remains found in storage pits and ovens at Iron Age and Roman sites in Europe have found its seeds mixed with conventional grains and even inside the stomachs of Danish bog bodies. It remains arguable whether the weed was included in the diet deliberately.

As the common names suggest, it is also used as food (both the leaves and the seeds) for chickens, hens and other poultry. However, the nitrates in the plant can be converted very efficiently to nitrites in the rumen of cattle, leading to changes in haemoglobin and reducing the ruminants' oxygen binding capacity.

Walking stick

The stalk hardens with age. In China, the stalk had been used as a walking stick since ancient times. For example, the following passage comes from Romance of the Three Kingdoms/Chapter 1#4:
... the old man had a youthful countenance, and was carrying a walking stick fashioned from the hardened stalk of a goosefoot (Chenopodium album) plant. (Wikisource translation)

Cultivation

The species is commonly regarded as a weed but it is cultivated as a grain or vegetable crop in some parts of the world.

It is one of the more competitive weeds, capable of producing crop losses of up to 13% in corn, 25% in soybeans, and 48% in sugar beets at an average plant distribution. It may be controlled by dark tillage, rotary hoeing, or flaming when the plants are small. Crop rotation of small grains will suppress an infestation. It is difficult to control with chemical means. Its pollen can contribute to hayfever-like allergies.

Propagation and pests

Chenopodium album is vulnerable to leaf miners, making it a useful trap crop as a companion plant. Growing near other plants, it attracts leaf miners which might otherwise have attacked the crop to be protected. It is a host plant for the beet leafhopper, an insect which transmits curly top virus to beet crops.

References

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