Malabar spinach features large green leaves, on a bright red vine that reaches up to 30 feet or more, and it does great in the texas summer heat – unlike most greens. Photo courtesy of Joe Urbach
Growth in gardening: Malabar Spinach
A cool, crisp, salad on a summer day is a wonderful thing, but did you know that salad really isn’t a summer food?
Yes, we can find tidy greens in the supermarket all year round, but most lettuce varieties, as well as greens like our beloved arugula, really don’t like summer heat. They are difficult to grow in Hays County during our summers and unless grown inside or under cover, most greens will quickly bolt, wilt, fail to germinate, and basically pout all summer long until the cooler weather of fall arrives.
So, what is a San Marcos gardener to do? Those of us in the know will tell you that the real stars of summer salads and sautés are not found in those cool weather greens at all, you’ll need to look elsewhere; enter Malabar spinach.
To be honest, my initial attraction to Malabar spinach had nothing at all to do with the edible nature of the plant. I was at a fellow plantfreak’s house and saw one in a pot growing up against a trellis. It was gorgeous, a redvined, succulent-leaved thing of beauty. I did not know what it was but when told its name I remembered that I had read about the plant, but I really knew nothing about it. Now it’s one of my favorite plants and it is easy to grow, and bonus: it really leaps when the temperatures hit 90 degrees and over – just about the time when the rest of my salad greens are descending into bitterness and grumbling about the heat.
Malabar spinach features large luscious leaves, on a vine that reaches up to 30 feet or more pretty quickly. The plant blooms lovely pinkish-purple flowers all through the heat, and develops little grape-like fruits, that though not conventionally eaten, can be used to make blueish-purple dye.
This leafy green is not actually a member of the spinach family and while the taste is similar to spinach, this delicacy is a very warm-season crop unlike the standard spinach grown in cooler parts of the U.S. This enjoyable treat is native to tropical Asia, probably originating from India or Indonesia, and is extremely heat tolerant.
Malabar spinach is grown throughout the tropics as a perennial and in warmer temperate regions as an annual. It loves our Texas summers though and provides pleasing and nutritious leaves all season long. There are two main species of Malabar spinach: Basella alba, which has green stems and thick fleshy leaves, and Basella ruba which has red stems. The mucilaginous texture is especially useful as a thickener in soups and stews. Personally, I love the red stem variety as the maroon and green looks beautiful climbing along my chain link fence.
A few things to note, though, if you decide to grow Malabar spinach. First of all, it vines. So, you have to give it something to climb on. This can actually be helpful for small gardens that need to grow vertically to maximize limited space. Secondly, some people have found that it can be a bit invasive. If doesn’t die off in a hard frost, you’ll have to keep it contained by hand cutting any unwanted spreading shoots.
Malabar spinach will grow well in a variety of soil conditions but prefers a moist fertile soil with plenty of organic matter and a soil pH of between 6.5 and 7.5.
Malabar spinach plants can be grown in part shade, which will increase the leaf size, but it much prefers hot, humid and full sun exposures. In full sun the leaves will be slightly smaller, but the vine will grow much faster and larger producing far more leaves than will be produced when grown in the shade.
Malabar spinach also needs constant moisture to prevent the blossoming, which will turn the leaves bitter, ideally an area with a warm, rainy climate is optimal. Of course, we do not really get that type of weather during our summer months, so I recommend a drip irrigation system or soaker hose setup to keep them happy.
Also note that the vine really does need to be trellised, and two or three plants are sufficient for most families through the summer and fall growing season. Grown as an ornamental edible, the vines can be trained to climb over doorways. To prune Malabar spinach, simply cut the thick, fleshy leaves while retaining some stem.
Malabar spinach can be grown from either seeds or cuttings, but I find it is easiest to grow from cuttings. In fact, when I am out harvesting leaves and stems and find a stem that is too big or too tough to eat, I simply push it into the soil and most of time it will re-root. What could be easier?
If you are not going to grow your own Malabar spinach, you can still enjoy it as you can find it for sale at just about any Asian or Indian grocery store. It’s a popular green in Asian, Indian, and even African cuisine and has been enjoyed as a food source for over 2,000 years. In Africa they tend to eat the tender vining shoots more than the leaves themselves, but I find that both the leaves and stems are very delicious. By the way, they are also very nutritious. Typical of many leafy vegetables, Malabar spinach is high in vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, and calcium. It is also rather low in calories by volume, but quite high in protein per calorie. The succulent mucilage is a particularly rich source of plant based soluble fiber, something we all need to have more of in our diets.
Grow your own or buy it from the market, once you have a good supply, using Malabar spinach is just like using regular spinach greens. Delicious cooked, Malabar spinach is not as slimy as some other greens.
In India, it is cooked with spicy chilies, chopped onion and mustard oil. Found frequently in soups, stir-fries and curries, Malabar spinach holds up better than regular spinach and doesn’t wilt as rapidly. Although when it is cooked most folks say that they cannot tell the difference between this and normal spinach, Malabar spinach raw is a revelation of the juicy, crisp flavors of citrus and pepper. One of its Chinese names literally means “flowing water vegetable,” so you can bet it offers a crispy crunch when eaten raw. It is delicious mixed in with other greens in tossed salads. However you decide to use Malabar spinach, you just need to try some this summer. Both as a cooked green and as a crispy raw green veggie. The truth is that discovering Malabar spinach has really been a boon for my family and it will be for anyone of us that love our greens but find the warm days of summer a bit too hot for their taste. Malabar spinach has its place in the kitchen garden, providing cool, crisp greens for the long, hot summer days.
Joe Urbach is the publisher of GardeningAustin.com and the Phytonutrient Blog. He has lived in the Central Texas area for over 30 years. Urbach is a certified Texas Master Gardener from Hays County and is currently serving as the director of training. For more information on the Master Gardener program contact the Hays County AgiLife Extension Service at 512-393-2120.