As a young Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, I ate many cooked leaves (and other things) that I had never seen before. One that stood out for its vigor and beauty was a vine we called Malabar spinach. When I returned home, I was thrilled to find this Jack-in-the-beanstalk-sized vine grew fine here, but as an annual rather than a perennial. If you love to grow unique plants and try new foods, this can be quite the edible conversation piece in your summer garden.
Although known by many names such as Ceylon, red vine, buffalo, and climbing spinach, Malabar spinach is not actually in the spinach family (Chenopodiaceae). There are two common species—one with brilliant red stems and leaf veins (Basella rubra L.) and one with green leaves and white stems (Basella alba L.). Both originate from tropical Asia, so here in our brutal hot summers Malabar spinach absolutely thrives. It prefers full or partial sun with moist, well-drained soil, but won’t fall apart if it gets dry. It is very frost sensitive, so I do try to pull it out before frost hits, as it turns into slippery mush when frozen.
You can purchase seeds and start them indoors 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost, as it starts slow and won’t take off until it’s very warm. After the first year, this prolific seeder will usually produce just a few seedlings that you can move to wherever you want. Even if lots of seedlings show up, they are easy to pull and not a problem. I haven’t had to purchase seeds in years. You can also root cuttings easily in water if you want to share with a friend.
Once Malabar spinach starts growing, you better have a fence or sturdy trellis to support its lusciousness. It can grow 30 feet (with lots of branches) if it has plenty of water and good soil. I often grow it along the fence of my compost pile to hide the garden debris inside; it completely covers the outside by mid-summer. It can be left to grow on the ground but it stays cleaner and more attractive as a climbing vine. Plus, you get to enjoy the sweet pink or white flowers that grow on short spikes along the thick stems. These turn into deep purple berries for the birds or for making a beautiful food coloring.
Malabar spinach is easy to grow, generally insect and disease free, and a lovely, vigorous vine, but how about the taste? Most agree that the glossy new leaves and stems are the best ones to eat fresh as they are tender and have a lemon or peppery flavor. The larger (bigger than your hand) leaves develop a mucilaginous texture somewhat like okra, especially when overcooked. This can be useful to thicken soups and stews, but may not please your dinner guests unless they are okra fans. Younger leaves are also excellent in stir fry, boiled or sautéed with garlic and other condiments. Asian recipes can provide ideas on how to utilize this super garden performer. And even if the flavor is not your favorite vegetable in the garden, it’s a bounteous plant that brings the tropics to your summer garden.
Jeana Myers, PhD, is the Horticulture Agent for Wake County. For gardening questions, contact the Extension Master Gardeners of Wake County at 919-250-1084 or email [email protected]