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!