Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.
I love spinach in my salads, but it only grows in the cool temperatures of the spring and fall. If I want spinach in my salad during the summer, I turn to Malabar spinach.
What is Malabar Spinach?
Malabar spinach (Basella alba) is a tropical vine that is native to the tropical parts of Asia. It is thought to have originated in India, Sri Lanka or perhaps Indonesia. It has naturalized in tropical areas of the world such as China, tropical areas of Africa and when Europeans brought it to the New World, in the West Indies, Columbia, Belize and Brazil. In the Pacific, it can be found in French Polynesia.
The vine goes by many names. In addition to Malabar spinach, it is known as Ceylon spinach, Indian spinach, vine spinach and climbing spinach. It is called spinach even though it is not related to spinach because the flavor is similar, slightly peppery with a hint of citrus.
Malabar spinach is usually eaten raw in salads. When cooked, it can become slimy like okra. Nevertheless, it is often used in stir fries, soups and as pot herb for stews. The stems are mucilaginous and are used as a thickening agent.
There is a red variety, Basella alba ‘Rubra’ with burgundy stems and leaves with pink veins. The fruits of this variety have been traditionally used in China to produce a red dye.
Malabar spinach is hardy in zones 10 and 11. In colder climates, it is grown as an annual. The plant grows as a vine. In areas where it is perennial, the vine can grow to 30 feet. When grown as an annual, it usually only reaches 6 feet. The leaves are heart-shaped and dark green.
The flowers are small and grow in stems. They can be red, pink or white. Bloom time is spring and summer when there is less than 12 hours of sunlight. The flowers are followed by berries that are reddish black. Each berry contains four seeds.
How to Grow Malabar Spinach From Seed
Malabar spinach seeds have hard seed coats so before you plant them, you have to scarify them. You can nick them with a knife or gently sand them with fine grit sandpaper. My preferred method to soften hard seed coats is to soak my seeds overnight.
Gardeners in zone 7 and warmer can direct sow their Malabar seeds in their gardens 2 – 3 weeks after their last frost date when the soil has warmed. Tropical seeds will not germinate in cold soil. Plant your seeds ½ inch deep. You can look for germination in about 3 weeks. Thin your seedlings to 12 inches apart.
The rest of us have to start our Malabar spinach seeds indoors 6 weeks before our last frost date. Plant your seeds ½ inch deep in containers filled with pre-moistened soil. The seeds germinate best when the soil is between 65°F and 75°f. A heat mat will help keep the soil warm.
You can expect germination in about 3 weeks. Wait to transplant your seedlings outdoors until the soil has warmed, at least 2 – 3 weeks after your last frost date. In my zone 6 New Jersey garden, I wait until the end of May to move my tropicals into my garden. That’s how long it takes for the soil to warm. Tropical plants won’t grow in cold soil.
Space your seedlings 12 inches apart.
How to Grow Malabar Spinach
Malabar spinach needs full sun and rich, well-drained soil with a pH of 6.5 – 6.8. It also likes hot weather, 80s and 90s. Below 80°F growth of your vines will slow.
Keep the soil constantly moist. If it starts to dry out, the vines will develop their flowers. If the plants flower, the leaves become bitter. Some gardeners grow Malabar spinach as an ornamental plant, so flowering wouldn’t be a concern and might actually add to the attractiveness of the plant.
A balanced slow release fertilizer is best for this plant. Sprinkle some on the soil when you plant your seedlings. Or if you direct sowed your seed, after the seedlings have developed their first set of true leaves.
Because this is a vine, you will need to provide support for it. It will grow equally well on a trellis, a fence, an arbor or a hanging basket. Count on your vine growing to least 6 feet when grown as an annual and 30 feet when grown as a perennial in tropical climates.
How to Harvest and Store Malabar Spinach
Wait until summer when your vine has enough foliage to maintain growth to begin harvesting. This is conveniently when your regular spinach will be petering out. Once summer has arrived, you can harvest leaves from your vine. Don’t completely denude it. Leave at least 1/3 of the leaves on the plant.
You can store your leaves as you would any leafy green in your refrigerator.
How to Grow Malabar Spinach From Cuttings
Malabar spinach is easy to grow from cuttings because the vines will readily root if they touch the soil in your garden. To grow a new vine from a cutting, make a 6 inch cutting from your vine. Strip the leaves from your cutting leaving just the top four leaves. Dip the stem in some rooting hormone and then gently press it into moist soil in a container.
Keep well watered. Roots should start growing in 2 – 3 weeks. You will know that your vine has roots because it will be growing new leaves. Plants without roots cannot grow new foliage.
© 2021 Caren White
Caren White (author) on March 20, 2021:
You're welcome! Growing zones are good to know when planning your garden.
Caren White (author) on March 20, 2021:
You're welcome! Malabar spinach should grow very well in Texas.
Abby Slutsky from America on March 19, 2021:
This was really interesting. I never thought about where spinach comes from (the regional areas). Since I am a not a gardener I happen to like when you mention the zone with the region like you did when referring to your own zone 6 area. Thanks for sharing such terrific info.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 19, 2021:
We love eating spinach. I may give this malabar spinach a try. Thanks for the information.