Malabar spinach – not that bad after all!
By Ralph E. Mitchell
I remember trying what is called Malabar spinach once years ago, and was not impressed with it – the texture or something? It seemed a bit too gelatinous for me. However, I tried it again last year and really enjoyed it this time. Perhaps it was the cook that made the difference. In any event, this summer heat-loving vine produces an abundant supply of leaves which can be used as a spinach substitute for the summer.
Malabar spinach comes originally from tropical Asia and is a perennial tropical plant which can grow upwards to ten feet tall. Also called Indian spinach, Ceylon spinach, vine spinach and climbing spinach, it is grown as an annual plant up north, but will survive most winters here as a perennial. Although perennial, I prefer to start a crop new from seed or cuttings each year. Seeds germinate in ten to twenty-one days, but soaking the seeds overnight will hasten the germination rate. Cuttings also root readily in any potting medium.
While the all-green variety of Malabar spinach is very popular, there is a red-stemmed cultivar that has pink veins in green leaves making this plant as ornamental as it edible. Grow Malabar spinach up a fence, a trellis or some type, or a cone of fencing to make a tower of edible leaves. I grow mine in a fifteen-gallon pot with a fixed cone of old plastic fencing secured to several poles. I can then train the twinning vines up and around the tower. Pruning off portions to eat keeps most of the vines in bounds and redirects growth keeping it compact. At some point in the late summer/early fall, the Malabar spinach plant will produce pink to white flowers followed by purple berries which can stain. At this point the leaves can get bitter. Flowering is triggered by the shorter days as well as dryness.
The heart-shaped, thick, succulent leaves can be eaten raw, steamed or boiled. As they are a bit viscous in nature, Malabar spinach is also useful in thickening stews much like okra. You should probably let someone who knows what they are doing prepare your Malabar spinach or check out recipes on-line.
My mother used to say, “You’ll like asparagus when you grow up!” I did learn to love asparagus and now Malabar spinach – I must have really matured! In any case, I like Malabar spinach and have a new crop already started for 2020 – you can as well! For more information on all types of edible ornamental suitable for growing in our area, please visit https://www.facebook.com/CharlotteMGLifeline/. Ralph E. Mitchell is the Director/Horticulture Agent for the UF/IFAS Charlotte County Extension Service. He can be reached at 941-764-4344 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
James M. Stephens (2018) Spinach, Malabar—Basella rubra L. The University of Florida Extension Service, IFAS.
Mahr, S.(2014) Malabar spinach, Basella alba. University of Wisconsin Extension Service – Madison
Growing Guide (2006) Malabar spinach. Cornell Cooperative Extension Service