The next time you open your bag of baby spinach before making dinner, take a careful look at those leaves. Are they smooth or savoy (puckered)? Are the tips pointed or round? Are the stems long or short? Are the leaves round or oval shaped? Shiny or matte? Dark or light green? Are the edges of the leaves cupped in, cupped out or flat? Spend a few hours in the field with a spinach breeder and you will soon understand these are serious questions.
“Every customer, dealer or grower has his own ideas about what is the best spinach,” said Ben Baerends, Seminis breeder. “So for me, as a breeder, it’s always the challenge to distill that relevant information that could give me the right direction for future breeding. Growers and processors, like the customers they serve, can be demanding. So it is important to have their direct and candid feedback in the field to make sure we breed spinach varieties that meet our customer’s needs.”
Examining the spinach in the field
Seminis hosted an event this spring in Yuma, Arizona, where dealers and growers were invited to visit our spinach field trials to encourage such dialogue. Comments floating around the field were short and to the point: “not very uniform,” “very erect,” “may go out of spec too quickly,” “good pliability,” “pretty fast,” “lot of reverse cupping.”
A lot of these comments may not have resonance to the untrained ear, but to spinach breeders like Baerends and John Meeuwsen, it’s a precise and familiar vocabulary that provides critical feedback to help focus breeding efforts. As Meeuwsen points out: “It takes just seconds to enjoy eating spinach, but several years to develop a variety that will be successful in the marketplace.”
The vocabulary of a spinach grower
Take the issue of cupping. When the edges of spinach leaves start to curl in, or cup, it signals a potentially serious flaw. Cupped edges have a tendency to split more easily during harvest and processing steps, leaving a wound on the leaf that may accelerate product decay. Growers note this flaw when they visit demonstration trials and are reluctant to plant a variety that may not have optimal shelf life. And that’s all it takes to land the death knell on a particular experimental variety.
Some traits simply reflect grower, processor or consumer preferences. Leaf shape, color and size all fit this bill, and growers choose varieties with the right balance of traits to meet the goals of particular customers.
Other traits are critical for harvest efficiency. Plants that are more erect and have uniform stem lengths are easy and quick to harvest. Leaves that are pliable are more resistant to physical damage. These leaves don’t tear or break during harvest and processing steps – and ensure a pleasing final product.
One trait that is particularly interesting is savoyness. Savoy leaves help to improve the visual appearance of packaged products, as these leaves are less likely to stick together, add volume and texture to the final product, and make a more favorable impression on the consumer. But savoy spinach varieties have a tendency to grower flatter, closer to the ground. This feature may increase soil contact with the leaves, making them harder to clean in the processing facility.
So the next time you look at a bag of baby spinach, understand it didn’t happen by accident. The size, shape, color and texture of spinach leaves are all designed to meet the very demanding needs of our customers. And our breeders are committed to meeting those needs every day.