There's so much to love about this useful plant. Let's look at Malabar Spinach, how to grow it, why you should grow it, and all the wonderful qualities it brings to your garden.
Over the past 6 months or so, I've written about my favorite plants, including chickweed, lambsquarters, sunroots, tomatoes, yarrow, and comfrey. Today let's look at another favorite plant of mine: Malabar Spinach.
This plant is a very tender perennial, native to the Indian subcontinent as well as southeast Asia, where it enjoys a frost-free growing environment. Any frost will kill this plant, so those of us in the more temperate environments grow it as an annual. Thankfully, it is easy to grow from seed, and grows extremely fast, finally blooming and setting seed all in one season. Now, despite its name, it's not in any way related to spinach. It's a vining plant that can easily achieve lengths of 20 feet or more in one summer. The leaves and stems are eaten in a variety of ways, and it's one of the few greens that we can enjoy in our hot Texas summers.
Speaking of heat, malabar spinach loves the heat. The hotter, the better, and with full sun it couldn't be happier. Plant it in a difficult area, give it a trellis or some other support, and it'll reward you with prodigious growth. Just as important, it's a stunningly beautiful specimen. There are two main varieties grown, the usual Malabar Spinach (Basella alba)
which is solid green, and my favorite, Malabar Spinach (Basella alba 'Rubra')
, which has striking red stems. Owing to its natural beauty, it deserves a place of prominence in your gardens.
An interesting aspect of this plant is that it is a rich source of mucilage, which has its pros and cons. Mucilage makes it kind of slimy and has the sensation of glue in the mouth, so most people don't just eat this thing raw. Instead, they'll take the leaves and use it in a wide variety of soups where the mucilage thickens the soup up and gives it the right texture. Countless recipes from southeast Asia call for malabar spinach, and I encourage you to look some up and give them a try. Many stir fry recipies also utilize this plant for thickening and for flavor. It also has some reported medicinal uses, being used in the treatment of stomatitis (an inflammation of the mouth and lips.)
It is very high in vitamin A, and has good quantities of vitamin C, iron and calcium. Although it is low in calories, it is high in protein per calorie, and is a good source of soluble fiber. The plant also contains certain phenolic phytochemicals with antioxidant properties! There's so much to love about this useful plant.
As summer turns to fall in your garden, the shortening days will trigger the flowering period, after which the vine will produce abundant little berries, the juice of which can be pressed and used as a powerful dye. The berries have no flavor, so lots of people use the juice as a food coloring. To save the seeds, you can wash the fruits off and then dry the seed. Or, just pick the fruits and let them all dry as is and save them that way. In the spring, sow your seeds the usual way, but you will get better germination if you scarify the seeds first. Remember that they love the heat, though, so wait until all danger of frost is long gone. When daytime temperatures are in the 80s is when this plant will germinate quickly and grow fast. Once it starts vining and getting going, keep the tips pinched to encourage branching.