Weedy Wednesday - Fat Hen

This week's plant in our Wednesday Weed series has the endearing name of Fat Hen. Originally grown as a vegetable, now considered a weed.

fat hen

In this weekly series, we take a quick look at common garden weeds. How they grow, what benefits they bring to the garden, and how to manage them. Organic growers recognise the importance of these native plants. Insects and birds need the flowers and seeds – and gardeners, cooks and herbalists can harvest some nutrient rich foliage.

We hope that this snap-shot view of bindweed, dandelion, nettle, bramble, thistle, goosegrass, plantain, fat hen, dock and yes, even ground elder, will help you to live with them. We also give advice on how to compost weeds. You may not love them, but you certainly won't be tempted to reach for the toxic weed-killer.

For more detailed information on over 100 individual weeds, go to the superbly researched Weeds List, and here for how to manage them.

Fat Hen Chenopodium album

What: This native summer annual is found throughout the UK on cultivated and waste land. It can quickly colonise a growing area - a single plant can produce 20,000 seeds.

Habit: The young plant grows upright, reaching heights of 10–150 cm, but typically falls over due to the due to the weight of the foliage and seeds. The first leaves, near the base of the plant, are toothed and roughly diamond-shaped, 3–7 cm long, but those on the upper part of the flowering stems are narrower and oval, with a whitish coat on the underside. Fat Hen flowers from July to September. It is wind pollinated and the flowers may be cross- or self-pollinated. Seeds are produced in abundance but mature relatively late in the season. Interestingly, the plant produces several different types of seed. Most are black and hard coated, but a small number are brown with thinner, with smooth seed coats. The latter germinate much more readily while the former persist longer in soil.

Benefits: Fat Hen was eaten as a vegetable from Neolithic times until the 16th century when it was replaced by spinach and cabbage. Rich in vitamin C, it is still grown and eaten in North India. The seeds can be ground into flour, and it was grown as food for pigs, sheep - and hens! The leaves are a source of ascaridole, an oil used to treat infestations of round worms and hook worms.

Controls: This is an easy weed to hand pull. Ensure you do so before flowering and seed formation. Fat Hen is killed by frost.

For further information on this and other weeds, go to the Weeds List, and here for how to manage them.