Is Swiss chard really from Switzerland? Nope. Its name actually honors the Swiss botanist who classified this leafy green with the scientific name Beta vulgaris subsp. cicla. (Say that three times fast…) Rather, this versatile vegetable was first cultivated much farther south – in the Mediterranean – where it’s been enjoyed for centuries.
The large, glossy green leaves and bright coloring of Swiss chard dress up a garden as much as a dinner plate!
Photo Credit: Megan Bame
Loose-leaf Swiss chard doesn’t form a head like with lettuce, but it continually grows new leaves from the center of the plant.
Photo Credit: Mark A. Miller
The original chards may have been white, but modern gardeners recognize the vegetable for the rainbow of colors now available.
Photo Credit: Megan Bame
There are many reasons this underappreciated veggie has been around for so long. First, it’s got a lengthy growing season. In temperate climates, starter plants can be put in moist, well-drained, sandy loam soil in early March and continually harvested from early spring through fall. (Seeds take a little longer to grow.) During the heat of summer, the leaves take on a bitter taste that may not be so palatable, but gardeners don’t have to abandon their plants! Simply cut the outer leaves away once a week, make sure the plants get plenty of water, and wait for the cooler temperatures to sweeten the tender foliage that continually grows from the center.
Harvesting Swiss chard is a breeze: The leaves are generally clipped when they reach 8-12 inches tall, but ones that grow larger won’t take on a bitter taste and are perfectly fine to eat. Any older leaves that have been passed over should be snipped off to encourage the new growth to flush from the center. And since that’s where the new growth comes from, care must be taken not to remove the center of the plant when harvesting!
But enough about history and cultivation. The big questions are: Is Swiss chard healthy, and does it taste good? The answers are yes…and yes!
The colorful leaves of this veggie are packed with vitamin A, calcium, iron and potassium. And while some compare the taste to spinach, most agree the flavor of Swiss chard is more sweet than bitter (at least for a leafy green). A cousin of beets and spinach, chard can be put in salads, cooked as a side dish or used in other recipes as a replacement for spinach. Even the colorful, rigid leaf stalks are good to eat. Just cut them away from the leafy greens and prepare them similarly to asparagus or celery.
One thing to note is that Swiss chard is rather perishable and should be used soon after harvest. The unwashed bundle of leaves can be wrapped in a paper towel and stored in an unsealed plastic bag in the refrigerator for several days. To ensure the best quality and flavor, the leaves should be rinsed just before meal preparation.
Last but not least, Swiss chard makes a great ornamental display! Folks often plant it in fall with pansies, ornamental cabbage and kale. The green’s bright stems and bulky leaves really set off a garden bed or container planting. I’ve even seen it used in a cutflower arrangement, with the colorful stems creating dramatic vertical lines through the glass vase.
Beautiful, flavorful and nutrient-rich, with a long growing season and easy harvest…what more could you ask for from your vegetables?