Malabar Spinach — An Easy-Grow Summer Green That Loves the Heat

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Story at-a-glance -

  • Malabar spinach is an easy-to-grow alternative to regular spinach. It grows like a perennial vine, and thrives in the summer heat when most other greens tend to turn bitter and dry
  • Trained on a trellis, with frequent pruning, you can turn it into a decorative edible hedge you can continuously harvest through the summer and fall, until it starts to bloom
  • You can use Malabar spinach in the same way you use regular spinach — raw in salads, lightly steamed or cooked, or used in stews, soups and stir-fries

By Dr. Mercola

Malabar spinach 1,2,3,4 is an interesting alternative to regular spinach. It grows like a perennial jungle vine, and thrives in the summer heat when most other greens tend to turn bitter and dry, easily reaching heights of 10 to 35 feet in a season. Trained on a trellis, with frequent pruning, you can turn it into a decorative edible hedge. Also known under the names Indian, creeping, Asian, Vietnamese, Surinam, Ceylonese and Chinese spinach, Malabar spinach comes in two varieties:5

  • Basella rubra, which has purple-red vines and pink flowers
  • Basella alba, which has white to pale green stems and white flowers

Characteristics

The red variety is more visually dramatic, but other than that, it grows and tastes nearly identical to its white counterpart. Full-grown leaves are about the size of your palm, with a slight crunchiness and a hint of lemon-pepper flavor that take on a more characteristic spinach flavor when cooked, although it's less bitter than regular spinach, thanks to it being lower in oxalic acid. Beware of overcooking, however, as heated leaves will eventually turn into unappetizing slime.

Young, immature leaves can also be harvested and used fresh in salads or added to a stir-fry. Toward the end of summer, the plant will bloom, at which time the taste of the leaves starts to degrade. So, be sure to harvest leaves continually before blooming.

When you break the leaves off, you may notice a gooey substance at the cut site. This is due to the high mucilage content of the leaves and stems. Mucilage is high in fiber, resembling apple pectin in that regard. Malabar spinach is also a good source of the following nutrients. The rubra (red) variety tends to be a bit higher in the antioxidants beta-carotene and lutein, courtesy of its red and purple colors.

Vitamin A

Vitamin C

Iron

Calcium

Protein

Magnesium

Phosphorous

Potassium

Beta-carotene

Lutein

How to Grow Malabar Spinach

Perhaps one of the most appealing characteristics of Malabar spinach is that it thrives in the high heat of summer. If you live at an elevation of 1,500 feet or higher, all the better still, as it prefers higher elevations. Another boon is the fact that few pests seem interested in Malabar spinach, so pest maintenance is minimal. A light spray of neem oil will usually be sufficient.

Since it's a perennial plant, you only need to plant it once. If you allow the seeds to drop toward the end of summer, the plant will regrow the following year. The exception is if you live in temperate climates. Here, you'll have to grow it as an annual as the cold will kill it.

I typically don't get freezes where I live, so I planted Malabar spinach a few years ago and now it pops up all over my property. So, you won't ever have to worry about purchasing new seeds but will need to control it from growing in places where you don't want it.

  • To encourage germination, soak your seeds overnight, then plant in well-draining soil in full sunlight, and be sure to keep the soil moist until the seeds have germinated. Alternatively, start the seeds indoors six to eight weeks before your last frost date, then transplant into your garden once nighttime temperatures remain steadily above 50 degrees F (10 degrees C)
  • Add a generous amount of organic soil conditioner into your soil before planting, along with a slow-release 10-10-10 fertilizer
  • Sow your seeds at a depth of one-fourth inch, approximately 18 inches apart. If planting rows, you need at least a 9-inch row gap
  • Once the seeds have germinated, pour liquid fertilizer over the seedlings, thoroughly wetting the leaves. Add a layer of straw or mulch to retain moisture in the soil
  • The plant prefers high humidity, so if you live in a dry climate, you may need to invest in a mister, or keep it in a greenhouse. Since it grows like a vine, you'll also need some sort of trellis for it to climb on

Harvesting

Harvesting is easy. Simply cut the stems of the leaves with a pair of scissors. Aggressive harvesting will encourage the plant to get bushier, so the more you eat, the more it will provide. Pruning the length of the vine will also encourage bushiness, so if you prefer a hedge-style bush rather than a long vine, just keep pruning it.

You can harvest leaves continuously through the summer and fall, until it starts to bloom. Many prefer young, tender leaves over more mature ones, as the flavor tends to be milder. Mature leaves are also higher in mucilage, the sliminess of which some might find unappetizing. The flowers are followed by purple berries that can be crushed and used as a natural food coloring.

Cooking Suggestions

You can use Malabar spinach in the same way you use regular spinach — raw in salads, lightly steamed or cooked, or used in stews, soups and stir-fries. The following buttery Malabar spinach recipe is from DIY Natural.6

Ingredient

  • 3 to 4 cups washed Malabar spinach
  • 2 tablespoons butter or coconut oil
  • Pinch of Himalayan pink salt
  • Pepper to taste
  • Juice from one lime, to taste

Directions

  1. Heat a small amount of water in a deep pan over medium heat. Add the Malabar spinach and steam until leaves are tender and wilted.
  2. Drain off the liquid and add the butter or coconut oil. Lightly toss to coat the leaves evenly, and braise for a few minutes. Remove from heat and add the lime, salt and pepper to taste. Best served warm.
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