In Central Florida, many farmers and gardeners take a break from growing vegetables in the summer. If you’re new to the area, the “summer” growing season is about May – September here. Heat, pests, and frequent rains make growing hard on many crops and growers. But a few tropical, heat-loving plants make summer gardening easy.
Admittedly not a big fan of green stuff, I personally find the flavor and texture of these greens more appealing than common lettuce or kale. Any of the following can be grown in containers, raised garden beds, or in the soil. Although they are all called “spinach”, they are not related to the spinach that most of us know.
Malabar spinach (Basella alba) is a beautiful, vining plant with tasty leaves and stems. It is grown from seed or cuttings and can be trellised. I like these crunchy and mild greens raw in salad, but they can also be steamed, sautéed, or used in omelets and soups. Harvest leaves and allow them to regrow on the vines; pinch off flowers to keep leaf production more vigorous. There are two types of this plant; the green variety is more vigorous, while the purple-stemmed ‘Rubra’ variety is well-suited to smaller spaces and containers. Neither will become invasive. Save some seeds to replant next spring, as this plant will die out with cooler weather.
Okinawa spinach (Gynura crepioides) can be grown in sun-part shade, and is started from cuttings. Leaves are delicious and tangy raw, and if eating as a cooked green, they are best steamed. A portion of leaves from stems may be harvested continually. Frequent harvesting encourages more compact growth. Pests, diseases, or cold weather may cause seasonal dieback of leaves, but the plant usually regrows.
Longevity spinach (Gynura procumbens) is closely related to Okinawa spinach and can be grown nearly the same, however, it will do best in a container that can be moved to a protected area during cold weather. I don’t find it as flavorful as Okinawa spinach, but it is being researched for it’s potential to lower blood pressure, prevent heart disease, and reduce inflammation, among other health benefits.
You won’t find these unusual plants at local big box stores, but they are available at local specialty nurseries, permaculture gatherings, and from online sources.