Note: this website is written for Australian readers, and as an accessory to our book Let’s Eat Weeds: A Kids’ Guide to Foraging (available below). If you’re viewing it from elsewhere you may have other look-alike plants in your area, so check local guides.
first off – let’s look at the real fat hen
When spring comes, fat hen (scientific name: Chenopodium album) starts growing – and all through summer and autumn you can cook its younger leaves like spinach, before it disappears again for the winter. (In warm parts of Australia it can hang around all winter too.) It has a couple of sort-of look-alikes. Both are edible, and one of them is actually pretty good! But it’s still important to know you have the right plant, so let’s start by taking a closer look at fat hen.
At the growth tips, where the leaves are really young (right at the top of the plant in the photo above) they are a bit silvery-white. Even the rest of the leaves usually have a bit of a whitish coating, so they aren’t very bright green.
The leaf shape on the plant above is typical of fat hen. It can have also have narrower and pointier leaves especially when it is making its flowers and seeds.
The bottom of the leaves are lighter in colour.
You’ll notice that you can rub the white coating off. Under a magnifying glass you can see lots of tiny waxy balls.
Fat hen usually grows to about a metre tall, but it can get taller.
Once it’s gone to seed, you probably won’t find much good to eat. Instead you want to pick the growth tips off before the plant starts to grow flowers.
(scientific name: Atriplex prostrata)
A plant often mistaken for fat hen is orache. It’s a related plant which often has a similar kind of colour about it. Fat hen grows from Tasmania all the way to the tropics, but orache only grows from Tasmania to Brisbane. This is orache:
It can have that same whitish covering of teeny waxy balls, especially on the young leaves, or on the underside of leaves.
But do you notice anything about the shape of the leaves? In the image below one of the leaves is fat hen, and one is orache. Can you tell which is which?
Unlike fat hen, which grows upright, orache grows more like a straggly ground-cover plant.
Well the good news is that orache is edible! We even quite like it. You eat the growth tips and leaves when it’s young in a similar way to fat hen. Both plants have oxalic acid in them, and that means they are best boiled and the water thrown away.
We should also mention that there’s a couple of other close relatives of orache, known as spear orache and native orache (scientific names: Atriplex patula and Atriplex australasica). They aren’t as common though. The leaves of spear orache are actually a bit more like fat hen’s than regular orache’s but narrower. If you want help telling what’s what, readers of our books are welcome to send us photos of the plant and we’ll take a look!
If you remember, orache’s scientific name is Atriplex prostrata (the ‘prostrata’ bit means ‘lying down’). Orache comes from Europe and North Africa, but it has lots of relatives that are native to Australia. These native Atriplex plants are known as ‘saltbushes’. Some are edible and taste salty, like old man saltbush (scientific name: Atriplex nummularia). The native saltbush plants don’t look as much like fat hen as orache though.
green fat hen
(scientific name: Chenopodium murale)
This one is even more closely related to fat hen: green fat hen and it grows pretty much all over the country, just like regular fat hen.
This is what it looks like:
The lumpy flowering parts look really similar. And the leaves have a similar overall shape to regular fat hen. The edge of their leaves are just a little bit toothier.
Green fat hen tends to not get quite as tall as fat hen, but really the main way we tell it apart is that it has shiny bright-green leaves, unlike regular fat hen’s which tend to be dull and greyish-green.
Although green fat hen is not one we eat (because it’s not as nice as regular fat hen) you can eat it in the same way. Even though it’s not native to Australia, it has been called ‘Australian spinach’.
With all the plants on this page contain oxalic acid, you don’t want to eat massive bowls of them too often, and always cook them first.
So that’s fat hen and a couple of plants you could mistake it for. Have you found it? Have you eaten it? Did you like it? You can let us know here. You can also send us photos if you’re not sure if you have the right plant.
There’s more photos of fat hen in our weeds gallery.
Answer to which leaf was which? Orache on the left and fat hen on the right. Nice work if you got it!
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