Growing veg: Malabar spinach

Malabar spinach, also called Ceylon spinach and more properly Basella alba is not a common vegetable in Northern Europe but widely grown in warmer climes. It is not related to spinach at all but has large, rather succulent leaves that can be used as spinach either steamed, fried or raw. It is another of those ‘weird’ crops but, for once, it is positively useful and not just an oddity.

Though grown as an annual, it is actually perennial and I have had plants survive in an unheated polytunnel, regrowing from the crown in spring. But it is a fast grower so treating as an annual is not a problem. The large seeds should be sown in heat in spring, ideally above 20c and I have found they germinate easily, though some references suggest scarifying the seeds. I sow them in individual cells or trays and the seedlings are big an have a satisfying vigour with large seed leaves and true leaves, Soon after they germinate they start to produce a vigorous shoot and these are climbers. Even in temperate Ireland they can easily reach 2m or more in a cold polytunnel or greenhouse. If you live somewhere comfortably warm and your spinach bolts and is impossible to grow in the heat of summer you should definitely give this a go.

Apart from warmth, the plants enjoy a rich soil (ideally acid or neutral) and plenty of organic matter. The better they are fed the larger will be the leaves. The strange flowers (this is in the Basellaceae after all and who knows anything about that! *) give rise to large seeds (probably fruits) that can be harvested for next year, though it is best to pinch off the spikes of bloom and to water freely to encourage leafy growth.

You can constantly pick the leaves and young shoots to use and they are succulent and slightly crunchy. It is much quicker to pick than spinach, and easier because less bending is required. The leaves are round and can be up to 15cm wide and flat so you can pick and stack a big handful of leaves. Cooked, they are not especially distinctive but they are good chopped and added to salads when they taste slightly lemony. The leaves are slightly mucilaginous but, as someone who heaves at the thought of okra, I don’t have a problem with it. If you like Indian recipes this could be a revelation for your recipes.

Plants are usually very productive and just a few plants will keep you in tasty leaves. The leaves are unusually high in protein for a leaf vegetable and, as might be expected, high in Vitamin C. I have also grown B. rubra which is very similar but with red stems and leaf veins. I prefer the green because it has always had larger leaves when I have grown it but don’t take that as gospel.

 

  • Basellaceae actually includes Anredera cordifolia, commonly called Madeira vine (and, of course, comes from South America) which is a similar-looking climber with heavenly scented flowers in fluffy spikes. It was incredibly popular in the USA a century ago and I have seen (and smelt it) it growing in warmer climates. It is a warm-growing equivalent of Russian vine ( Fallopia baldschuanica – at present) and is capable of smothering shrubs and buildings and can be invasive where frosts are rare. I would love to find it and grow it though – no chance of it becoming invasive here!

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3 Comments on “Growing veg: Malabar spinach”

  1. tonytomeo
    March 16, 2021 at 3:28 pm #

    Ceylon spinach, as we know it, was a fad for a while, and became more popular than real spinach for a while. I do not know how popular it is now. I have never grown it. If I remember correctly, Madeira vine formerly grew in the remains of old gardens of abandoned farmhouses of the Santa Clara Valley. (The sites of some of the old farmhouses were some of the last sites to be redeveloped as the orchards around them were redeveloped earlier.) As the home sites were eventually redeveloped, the vines were eradicated.

    • thebikinggardener
      March 16, 2021 at 5:19 pm #

      It is interesting that Madeira vine survived in old gardens. I have seen old American seed catalogues from the 1890-1910 era and they all extol the virtues of the plant.

      • tonytomeo
        March 17, 2021 at 4:23 pm #

        Interesting? Many old plants survive here if they get water through summer. Some of those old gardens included Kahili ginger, flowering quince, calla, zonal geraniums and such. You would think that such plants would have been popularized during the ‘sustainability’ craze. (Of course, those who grow horticultural commodities do not profit from plants that are sustainable enough to diminish the need for more new plants to replace those that are less than sustainable.) Plants that do not need water can naturalize. I suspect that the Madeira vine grew like a weed where where it got some degree of water through summer. I remember it thrived on the edges of abandoned landscapes, where it could have gotten some water from adjacent landscapes or street trees. It seemed that many of the old water tanks and windmills were overwhelmed with the vines, as if they grew where water leaked from old plumbing. Seriously, I can remember more than one tank and windmill sagging under the vegetation that seemed to pull it down until they were eventually demolished. It is difficult to believe that there were actually abandoned landscapes and old farmhouses in the Santa Clara Valley.

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