Salicornia goes by many names, and yet most of them are misleading. It’s called sea bean, but it’s not a bean. Sea asparagus? It’s not that either. It’s sometimes known as glasswort, because its ashes were used in the 16th century to make soda-based glass, but no longer. Another of its popular names is chicken claws, because its scalelike leaves turn pinkish red in autumn.
Salicornia is, in fact, a succulent herb, and it’s a halophyte, meaning it tolerates salt water. This fact makes it of particular interest to atmospheric physicist Carl Hodges. Hodges thinks that as global warming threatens supplies of fresh water, salicornia will become more and more desirable as a food crop. Hodges has been running a test farm in Mexico for the past decade, watering the plants with salt water that’s recycled from shrimp and tilapia farms. He has a bigger vision, however: Hodges wants to create a multimillion-dollar aquaculture project in North America that diverts seawater to fields of salicornia.
According to the Los Angeles Times, he thinks such a project would add millions of acres of productive farmland, sequester vast quantities of carbon dioxide, and help adjust rising sea levels. But salicornia isn’t just a food source, Hodges emphasizes; it also can be converted into biofuel. The Times article contains this tantalizing tidbit: “NASA has estimated that halophytes planted over an area the size of the Sahara Desert could supply more than 90% of the world’s energy needs.”
So, there’s a possibility of lots of salicornia in our future. What does it taste like? In a 2007 blog entry, Clotilde Dusoulier at Chocolate & Zucchini described its flavor as “marine and slightly ferrous like spinach.” It can also be pickled, which reportedly yields a “spicy” flavor.