If you've ever been dragged to a shady-looking sushi joint, turned up your nose at the quality of the seafood, and said "Uh, no thanks! I'll just have a salad" then you're probably familiar with saltwort. Commonly cultivated in Japan's coastal saltmarshes, saltwort is easily grown here in North America...with or without salt (or radioactive waste, for that matter) as a soil amendment.
Are you looking at growing saltwort from seed for a little something different this season? Saltwort is a great ornamental, a fantastic niche vegetable for market gardens, and a multipurpose plant for the home chef.
Saltwort's Origins and Cultural History
There is a wide variety of unrelated saltworts, but the most popular culinary type is Salsola komarovii. It's native to Siberia, China, and Japan. It's hard to believe, but this succulent plant is a relative of the tumbleweed (Salsola collina, a.k.a. the slender Russian thistle) which naturalized in the alkaline soils of the American Southwest.
In Japan, saltwort's called okahijiki, which means "land seaweed"; there, it's considered one of the oldest cultivated vegetables.
Salsola is derived from the Latin term for "salty", and komarovii honors the Russian botanist, geographer, and statesman Vladimir Komarov (1869-1945).
Watch out, spinach! Saltwort is richer in vitamins and minerals, including vitamin A, potassium, and calcium. It doesn't have much of a history as a medicinal plant, though it's been recognized as a natural antioxidant, and the Japanese have used it as a diuretic for centuries.
Imagine that moment in primordial history when that lone, pioneer-spirited amphibian grew lungs and took its first step onto dry land. Well, that pretty much describes this stuff; it's a primitive-looking plant that grows on low sand dunes and in brackish coastal marshes as if it's not quite sure in which world it belongs.
OK, so now you're probably wondering what this peculiar plant looks like. The short answer? Imagine a stubby dill plant on "the juice."
Saltwort in the Garden
- Climate: Saltwort, an annual, thrives in cooler maritime regions but given its short maturing time, it makes a great early-season or late-summer crop in all but the coldest USDA hardiness zones. In cooler areas, you can stagger plantings for a continuous supply of greens.
- Plant Height: 8" to 18"tall, 6" to 10" wide.
- Plant Color: Bright, deep green.
- Foliage: Long, needle-shaped, tubular leaves. Older leaves can become prickly.
- Flowers: Tiny pale yellow flowers bloom from the stems beginning in midsummer.
- Sunlight: Saltwort requires full sun, and only grudgingly tolerates partial shade.
- Water Requirements: While saltwort will tolerate some drought, it should be kept moist to retain its ideal texture and vitality.
- Soil Preferences: Saltwort does best in well-drained sandy or loamy soil with occasional fertilization.
- pH: This adaptable plant thrives in slightly acidic to very alkaline soil. Shoot for a pH range of 6 to 8.
- Companion Plants: When cultivated in neutral soils, saltwort does well with leafy brassicas and other plants that require regular watering. It looks and lives nicely around parsleys, and gets along with tomatoes.
Japanese farmers often irrigate okahijiki crops with salt water, though it grows just as well inland with the water from your garden hose. If you live in an area with high soil salinity where nothing else grows, you'll definitely want to give saltwort a try, but this early-maturing plant can grow almost anywhere. Saltwort is classified as a halophyte, meaning it is salt tolerant; there is a distinction between these plants and those that actually require saline environments.
Growing Saltwort from Seed
In spite of its love for cool, coastal environments, Salsola komarovii requires very warm temperatures to germinate. We recommend starting your saltwort indoors on a heat mat about 2 to 3 weeks prior to planting outdoors.
Fall-planted saltwort can be direct-seeded in late summer, but it doesn't hold up to frost. It can handle temperatures as low as 35°F but don't push your luck.
Heads Up: It's extremely important to plant your saltwort seeds as soon as they arrive, as they have a very short shelf life (3 to 4 months). Aren't you glad you can rely on Seed Needs for the freshest seeds around?
- Soil Preparation: Saltwort prefers well-drained, even sandy soil amended with compost for best growth.
- Seed Depth: Plant your saltwort seeds up to 1/2" below the soil surface.
- Seed Spacing: Commercially-produced saltwort can be planted as close as 4" to 6" apart.
- Days to Germination: Under optimal conditions, saltwort germinates in 7 to 14 days. Be sure to keep the soil consistently moist at 75°F to 80°F to ensure germination.
- Transplanting: Kick your saltwort out of your house or greenhouse when it's a couple inches tall, and frost danger has passed.
- Invasiveness: Nope! Saltwort has very healthy boundaries.
- Container Planting: Sure, why not? Just remember that container plants tend to dry out faster than those planted in the soil, so keep an eye on your plant's moisture levels.
- Maintenance: A bit of all-purpose fertilizer in the middle of saltwort's growing season will boost production, but it isn't necessary.
- Maturity and Harvesting: As far as we know, saltwort won't toilet paper your garden shed or light a paper bag full of dog doo on your patio steps, and like Drew Barrymore, it grows up pretty fast but without the alcohol dependency issues. Saltwort matures in about 40 days, though leaf tips should be harvested by trimming when the plant is young (at least 6" tall) and to prevent flowering for best taste.
- Pests and Diseases: OK, maybe saltwort isn't that mature, because it flips the bird to insects, invertebrates, and plant ailments.
Mature saltwort leaves take on a spiny, tougher texture as they mature, and the stem can become woody. Harvest the whole plant as a microgreen when it's 6" to 8" inches tall, or snip off new leaves for "as-needed" use.
Cooking with Saltwort
We've had a difficult time finding recipes specific to saltwort, but a lot of culinary bloggers (like this one) rave about using it as a simple saute' with garlic, white wine, and a little olive oil, or tossed in salads with a little tomato, red onion, and red wine vinaigrette.
Saltwort has a crunchy, pleasing texture when served raw or pickled (the plant, not you. Put down that sake!) in Japanese seaweed salads. If you're looking to heat things up, it's best cooked with a light sauté or quickly blanched in salted water to preserve its texture.
The gist of it is, saltwort has so many creative applications in the kitchen, the world is your oyster.
Saltwort's named more for its environment than for its delicate flavor, which is only mildly salty (and less so if grown in neutral or acidic soils). That salinity makes this herb a great balancing green for recipes containing bitter and sweet ingredients.
If you're cooking a white meat or seafood dish, saltwort's the perfect accompaniment. Speaking of oysters...ditch the spinach and top off baked shellfish with a layer of saltwort for a delicious bastardization of Oysters Rockefeller. Use fresh okahijiki in sushi rolls, shrimp or vegetarian spring rolls, or laid out as an edible decorative bed when plating whole fish.
It makes an attractive garnish for soups and hors-d'oeuvres, and since we're always looking for an excuse to stage taste tests for bloody marys, we're happy to report that you can stick tender saltwort, stems and all, in your favorite brunch beverage with very satisfying results.
Are you a ceviche fan? This herb's tart, salty flavor, and crunchy texture perfectly complements tomatoes, seafood, and avocados, and carries over well to fresh salsa recipes, as well.
Salsola komarovii is a suitable substitute for another popular succulent vegetable often found in Asian cuisine. Salicornia europaea is commonly known as "glasswort" or "samphire" and has long, segmented fronds, in contrast to saltwort's long, smooth, needle-shaped leaves. S. komarovii is also a fantastic stand-in for agretti (Salsola soda), which is all the rage in Italian haute cuisine.
If you want to get all fancy-pants at your next dinner party, pick that glass of sake up again and place an order with us because you've got to put saltwort on your menu.
A Marketable Microgreen
As agretti seeds are hard to come by due to popular demand, producers near larger cities would do well to include fast-maturing Salsola komarovii in their microgreen offerings. It's an unusual and attractive draw for farmers market stands with a "what the heck is that" conversation catalyst.
Saltwort, when marketed as okahijiki and as a ringer for agretti and samphire, is like kitty crack to upscale and edgy Asian, European and fusion chefs. If you're in a position to grow a consistent supply, this is the kind of vegetable that can earn you contracts with those hard-to-nab clients.
Get Fresh with Seed Needs
As we've mentioned, saltwort seeds have a very short shelf life. That's why it's important to source them from a supplier with a commitment to selling only the freshest seed stock.
We only shake down our own suppliers for what we predict we can sell in a season. Our reputation depends on customer service and the viability of our ornamental, vegetable, and herb seeds. We store our stock under optimal conditions to preserve their quality and hand-package them to order.
Do you need custom volumes, personalized packaging, or growing tips? Have you experimented with okahijiki and can't wait to share your new recipe? Please reach out! We'd love to hear from you.In the meantime, keep reading our blog, and bookmark our catalog for new additions! We do everything we can to accommodate requests for new varieties, provided we can meet that demand with the highest-quality product available. You expect nothing less, and when you trust us with your season's success, we take it seriously!