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Several different genera of plants are referred to as “saltwort” despite the fact that they are unrelated, and, curiously, all of them are edible. Plants in the Salsola genus native to Asia, Europe, and Africa are used in Asian cuisine, especially in Japan, while saltwort in the Batis genus has been used by Native Americans as a source of food and cooking oil. Additionally, the genus Salicornia has provided food to Europeans and residents of the American Northeast for centuries.
These plants are similarly named because they all are capable of thriving in salty environments. Salt is tough on plants, and most plant species cannot cope with it, especially in high concentrations. Saltwort evolved on beaches and in salty marshes, and as a result, it can take hold where other plants cannot. Saltwort is routinely harvested from seasides and marshes along the coasts of Europe, Asia, Australia, and parts of the Americas, making saltwort an interesting example of convergent evolution.
The saltworts even look similar. They have fleshy stems, slightly flattened, needle-like leaves, and small flower balls which can vary in color. The physical differences reflect saltwort's ability to conserve water. When young, saltwort is tender and crunchy, with a flavor which can vary considerably, depending on the species. Older saltwort turns harder and more twig-like, in which case it may be ground or steamed before being used as a seasoning to make it palatable.
Depending on the species, saltwort also carries nutritional benefits. Many are rich in vitamin A, calcium, and potassium, making them great additions to the diet in addition to culinary herbs. Saltwort can be prepared in a number of different ways, including being steamed or fried as a side dish, rolled up in sushi, sprinkled onto foods as a garnish, added to salads, and included in soups and stews.
Saltworts go by a number of alternate names. Plants in the Salicornia genus are also known as samphire, St. Peter's Herb, umari keerai, and sea beans. This saltwort genus has a flavor like that of spinach and other leafy greens, and it is usually cooked before consumption. The Salsola genus also goes by okahijiki, agretti, or barba de frate, and may be eaten raw or cooked, with young shoots being especially prized for their crisp texture. The seeds of Batis saltworts have proved to be highly nutritious, being rich in proteins and an assortment of vitamins, and they can also be pressed for a valuable oil, while the greens may be used in a variety of dishes.