When warmer summer temperatures cause lettuces, kale and spinach to bolt and grow bitter, it’s time to replace them with heat-loving, easy-to-grow Malabar spinach.
Although not technically a spinach, Malabar leaves can be used in place of traditional spinach, and make an attractive, vining edible with bright fuchsia stems and flowers.
- What is Malabar Spinach?
- How to Plant Malabar Spinach
- Special Tips for Growing Malabar Spinach
- Malabar Spinach Pests and Diseases
- How to Harvest and Store Malabar Spinach
- How to Save Malabar Spinach Seeds
- How to Use Malabar Spinach
What is Malabar Spinach?
Also known as climbing spinach, Indian spinach, vine spinach, or Ceylon spinach, Malabar spinach isn’t a true spinach, but its leaves look and taste a lot like the familiar green leafy vegetable. The dark green, glossy, heart-shaped leaves are thick and semi-succulent with a mucilaginous texture.
Malabar spinach is a member of the Basellaceae family. Basella alba is the green leaf variety and Basella rubra has purplish stems and leaves. Malabar spinach is native to India, and is popular as a leafy green in China, Africa, Southeast Asia, Indonesia, New Guinea, and India.
How to Plant Malabar Spinach
While the dark green leaves resemble those of spinach, Malabar spinach is a vine that thrives in hot temps, even exceeding 90 F. (32 C.) It is usually grown as an annual, but easily grows like a perennial in regions that are frost free. In fact, it does so well in hot climates, and spreads it seeds so prolifically, it can become invasive if you aren’t careful.
Just two plants are sufficient to provide plenty of leafy greens for most families through the summer and fall growing season.
Soil Preparation for Malabar Spinach
Malabar spinach grows well in a variety of soil conditions but prefers a moist, fertile soil with plenty of organic matter, and a slightly acidic soil pH of between 6.5 and 6.8. It will also grow well in pots, as long as the potting soil is highly fertile and well-draining.
Malabar spinach can be grown in partial shade, but it prefers hot, humid temperatures and full sun.
Planting Malabar Spinach
Malabar spinach can be grown from either seeds or cuttings. It can be planted in USDA zone 7 or warmer, and really needs heat to grow, so wait to sow or transplant until the soil has warmed and there is no chance of frost.
Sow Malabar spinach seeds ¼ inch deep, two to three weeks after the last frost date. If you live in a colder zone, start the seeds indoors in pots set on a heated growing mat, about six weeks before the last frost. Germination requires about three weeks with soil temperatures between 65-75 F. (18-24 C). Soaking the seeds in water overnight before planting them will aid germination.
To propagate Malabar spinach from a cutting, trim a piece from the end of one of the stems. Cut just below a growing node, trimming stems to 5-6 inches in length. Rooting hormone can be used if you’d like, or you can place the cutting directly into well-draining soil. Cuttings can also be rooted in water.
Thin or transplant your seedlings or cuttings to about a foot apart.
Fertilizing Malabar Spinach
If you have already mixed in compost or aged manure during your soil prep, you will only need to side-dress your Malabar spinach plants with fertilizer during the growing season. You will want an organic formula that is high in nitrogen and lower in phosphorus and potassium.
You should apply fertilizer to the soil around your plants roughly once a month throughout the growing season.
Special Tips for Growing Malabar Spinach
Malabar spinach is a tropical plant that needs consistent moisture throughout the growing season. Allowing the soil to totally dry out will encourage flowering, which will turn the leaves bitter. Daily, timed drip irrigation or a lot of rain are strongly recommended. Mulching is recommended to keep the soil moist.
Trellis the Vines
This fast-growing plant is a vigorous, twining vine that can grow up to 10 feet long as an annual, and even longer as a perennial in warm climates. Malabar spinach will need to be trellised or given something sturdy to climb.
Grown as an ornamental edible, the attractive vines can also be trained to climb over doorways, fences, pergolas, etc. To prune Malabar spinach, simply cut the stems back. Aggressive pruning will typically just make the plant bushier.
Companion Plants for Malabar Spinach
Malabar spinach is a marvelous companion for asparagus, brassicas, eggplant, leeks, lettuce, peas, radishes, and particularly strawberries. They will not do well if they are planted beside potatoes.
Malabar Spinach Pests and Diseases
Malabar spinach is relatively care-free and not typically bothered by pests and diseases, but you might see the following issues:
Leaves curl under and become deformed and yellowish.
Aphids are tiny, oval, and yellowish to greenish pear-shaped insects that colonize on the undersides of leaves. They leave behind sticky excrement called honeydew which can turn into a black sooty mold. Use insecticidal soap.
Small holes or pits in the leaves.
Flea beetles are tiny pests that are dark in color, with a shiny, iridescent carapace. They jump like fleas when disturbed, earning the name flea beetles. Use floating row covers; mulch deeply around plants. Use diatomaceous earth or Neem oil to control the population.
Leaves with large, smooth chew holes.
Slugs and snails should be hand-picked with gloved hands and drowned in a pail of water. You can also easily lure them into traps made by placing an inch of beer in a small open container, and sinking it up to its rim in soil or mulch. You can also use copper tape around your garden beds, or diatomaceous earth to keep them away from your plants.
Plant looks stunted with yellow leaves.
Root knot nematodes are Malabar spinach plants’ one true nemesis. If you have them, destroy affected plants and find a new location to plant your Malabar spinach.
Leaves with red spots and holes.
Cercospora beticola is a fungal disease that can affect beets, spinach, Swiss chard and Malabar spinach. Use drip irrigation, crop rotation, and remove and destroy infected leaves to prevent the disease from spreading. A good-quality liquid copper fungicide, or a solution of Bacillus amyloliquefaciens applied to the leaves can treat the disease organically.
How to Harvest and Store Malabar Spinach
You can harvest the leaves of Malabar spinach at any point during the growing season, once the vines have at least 8-10 leaves. There’s no special trick to harvesting Malabar spinach: Just snip tender, young leaves with scissors or a knife. Cut leaves from the outside first, being sure to leave at least 6 leaves behind to allow the plant to regrow.
Malabar can handle aggressive pruning and in fact, picking large amounts of the plant will only encourage it to become bushier. If you don’t have the room for a lengthy vine, just harvest frequently.
Flowers will make the leaves a bit bitter, and will produce a profusion of dark purple berries that are mildly sweet with big seeds inside. The berries are highly pigmented, and can be used as food coloring or egg dye.
Malabar spinach is best eaten fresh. After harvesting the leaves or stems, use them immediately or store them in the refrigerator for 2-5 days. If you have a very abundant harvest, you can blanch the leaves and then freeze them.
How to Save Malabar Spinach Seeds
Malabar spinach will die out in the winter, but often the seeds (if left on the vine) will fall to the ground and sprout the following spring by the dozens. In fact, if you have mild winters, you may find Malabar spinach becomes your biggest garden weed!
To harvest the seeds for future planting, twist the berries off the vine when they are deep purple to almost black in color. Then you can do one of two things:
- Place the berries in a bowl with soapy water or in a sieve under running water, and rub them until the fruit is removed from the seeds. Use waterproof gloves because the juice can badly stain your hands. Place the cleaned seeds on a plate or towel and allow them to dry completely.
- Dry the berries whole, and plant them the following year. This will take much longer to dry than the first method.
Use air-tight containers, and store in a cool, dark place or the refrigerator. The less moisture and sunlight there is the better the seeds will keep. Depending on how well they’re stored, dried Malabar spinach seeds can remain viable for up to three years.
How to Use Malabar Spinach
Both the leaves and stems of Malabar spinach can be eaten raw in a green salad, or steamed, sauteed, or boiled like regular spinach. The leaves and stems can be harvested and eaten throughout the growing season, but once the plants start flowering, the leaves become bitter.
Malabar spinach is delicious in soups, stir-fries and curries, and it holds up better than regular spinach during cooking because it doesn’t wilt as much. You can use Malabar spinach in almost any recipe that calls for regular spinach.
Because of its mucilagenous nature, Malabar spinach can also be used to thicken soups and stews. Some people don’t appreciate the somewhat slimy texture of the cooked leaves (reminiscent of cooked okra or chia seeds). This mucilage is a great source of soluble fiber, much like the pectin in apples.
Malabar spinach is high in beta carotene, lutein, Vitamin C, folate, and manganese. It is also a good source of B vitamins, calcium, magnesium, and iron.