Malabar Spinach: Heat-Loving Garden Greens
Malabar spinach isn't a true spinach at all, but tastes like it when cooked. Learn how to grow this prolific staple green with our guide!
Malabar spinach is a warm-weather vegetable that originates from Asia and is a common ingredient in many Asian cuisines. Its leaves, shoots, and berries are all edible and have different culinary applications. Malabar is a region on the southwest coast of India where the tropical climate provides the perfect growing condition for this vigorous vine. This vegetable is also known as Indian spinach, Ceylon spinach, or vine spinach.
One common issue with growing regular spinach is that spinach tends to bolt and turn bitter as soon as the temperature rises. Last year in my zone 5b garden, I was only able to get a few short weeks of harvest out of my Bloomsdale Long Standing variety between the last frost and the first heatwave of late spring. It was the first leafy green to bolt in my garden, even before my arugula! Although Malabar spinach is not botanically related to common market spinach varieties, it can be a great alternative to produce in your summer garden.
When grown in warm conditions such as in Southern California or the southern states in the U.S., Malabar spinach is a perennial. In most other climates it is grown as an annual. It can also become invasive if you let your plants go to seed. However, if your growing region experiences any frost, you can only grow this vegetable as an annual and it makes a great succession planting alternative after cold-hardy leafy greens.
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Quick Care Guide
|Common Name(s)||Malabar spinach, Ceylon spinach, Indian spinach, vine spinach|
|Scientific Name||Basella alba or Basella rubra|
|Days to Harvest||50 days for baby greens; 85 days to full size|
|Soil||Prefers fertile soil with pH ranging from 6.5 to 6.8 although it can tolerate poor soils|
|Fertilizer||Nitrogen-rich fertilizer to support leaf growth|
|Diseases||Cercospora leaf spot|
All About Malabar Spinach
Malabar spinach can serve multiple purposes in your garden both as an edible crop and also as a landscaping ornamental. There are two common species of Malabar spinach: Basella alba and Basella rubra. Basella rubra is more commonly grown as an ornamental plant because of its striking purple vine color whereas the dark green Malabar spinach Basella alba is more commonly cultivated for food. Both species are edible and very nutritious with high levels of calcium, iron, and Vitamins A and C.
Both Malabar spinach types are fast-growing vines with oval to heart-shaped leaves that are dark green and semi-succulent. The vines are vigorous and can grow up to six feet tall in one season. The main difference between Basella alba and Basella rubra is in the color of their vines. The word “alba” means white in Latin whereas “rubra” means red. Malabar spinach blooms in the summer as long clusters of small purple-white flowers. These flowers will eventually become dark purple berries, which are edible but can also be used as a dye. Keeping the soil moisture consistent throughout the hot summer months is very important if you plan to grow Malabar spinach for food. Dry soil will trigger the vine to flower and change the flavor profile of the leaves from mild to bitter.
Malabar spinach leaves and tender stems can be added to soups, stews, curries, or stir-fries. The leaves are fleshy and can be a good thickener. The root of the Malabar spinach is even used in some cultures as a traditional medicine to treat diarrhea and other stomach issues.
Planting Malabar Spinach
Malabar spinach is very sensitive to frost so it must be planted after all danger of frost has passed and after the soil has warmed. This vine can be started from seed, directly sown, or transplanted from cuttings.
Seeds or transplants grow best in full sun. Malabar spinach is easy to take care of and can thrive when planted directly in-ground, in raised beds, or in containers. You will need to add a trellis to help the vines climb vertically, or let the vines sprawl to become a quick ornamental groundcover.
Malabar spinach is easy to grow and a great heat-tolerant vegetable to try in the summer. Given the right conditions, your Malabar spinach can become both a visual and culinary star in your garden.
Sun and Temperature
Malabar spinach grows best in full sun which means six or more hours of sunlight in the summertime. Malabar spinach can be grown as an annual in most USDA growing zones but can be a perennial in zone 7 and above. Because this spinach vine thrives in the summer heat, it may not grow as vigorously in zones where the average summer temperature is under 80-90 degrees F. Malabar spinach is very frost sensitive and will not survive after even a light frost.
Water and Humidity
Malabar spinach is a tropical plant so it needs consistent soil moisture. If you live in a hot and dry climate, make sure to stay on top of watering by setting up a timer and watering deeply with soaker hoses. Also liberally use mulch to help keep the soil moist.
This type of vine spinach is sensitive to dry spells and will flower and turn bitter if not watered consistently. This may not be an issue if you are growing Malabar spinach as an ornamental vine. Take care not to overwater and avoid spraying from above to prevent the spread of fungal diseases. If you are growing Malabar spinach in a tropical climate that has a rainy season, you will not need to water additionally during that time.
Malabar spinach prefers well-draining, loamy and rich soil. The ideal soil pH should be slightly acidic ranging from pH 6.5 to 6.8. Although it can tolerate alkaline or poor soils, the growth of the plant will drastically slow down. Apply mulch to the surface of your soil to prevent soil moisture evaporation during hot weather and to reduce the spread of weeds.
When you grow Malabar spinach for its dark green or purple-red leaves, you should use a high nitrogen fertilizer to promote healthy leaf growth. Start your plants off in fertile soil in the spring with some added nitrogen fertilizer. Continue to fertilize every 3-4 weeks throughout the growing season to encourage more leaf production.
Malabar spinach can be pruned quite aggressively. In fact, if your plant is not pruned, it might quickly take over a growing area. Frequent pruning and harvesting of the green leaves and shoots is good for the plant and can promote more leafy and bushy growth. Because this plant self-seeds easily, you will need to remove the berries or prevent the vines from flowering. Malabar spinach can become an invasive plant if not managed properly.
You might find more success with germinating Malabar spinach seeds if you scarify or mechanically open the tough seed coat by nipping it with a sharp knife or roughing the coat with sandpaper. Soaking the seeds in water overnight before planting can also hasten germination. Start seed indoors or sow directly ¼ inch deep. If direct sowing, thin seedlings until they are 6 inches apart.
To propagate Malabar spinach from a cutting, trim a piece from one of the stems. Cut just below a growing node, getting stems that are 5-6 inches in length. Rooting hormone can be used if you’d like, or you can directly place the cutting in well-draining soil. Cuttings can also be rooted in water. Roots should develop within two weeks and be ready to transplant out into the garden.
Harvesting and Storing
Malabar spinach can be eaten raw in salads as a replacement for leafy greens or can be cooked in different dishes. This plant is the perfect substitute for any dish that calls for traditional spinach. Typically younger leaves and shoots are best-suited to eat, especially if in a salad.
Malabar spinach can be harvested as early as 50 days from the time of planting or when you see a strong main stem has been established. Pick smaller heart-shaped leaves throughout the plant or snip off tender stems. Harvest frequently to help bush up the plant while leaving at least six inches of stem and leaves untouched every time. Continue to harvest weekly or until the cold kills off the plant.
Malabar spinach is best eaten fresh. After harvesting the leaves or stems, use immediately or store in the refrigerator where it can keep for 2-5 days. If you have a very abundant harvest, you can blanch the leaves and then freeze them.
Many grow Malabar spinach as a favorite market crop in Asia due to its resistance to pests and diseases. It’s not a fussy plant to grow in the garden which makes it a great choice for novice and advanced gardeners alike.
Ceylon spinach might be slow to get started as your weather warms up for the summer, but should not have many problems once established. Make sure to only plant it after any danger of frost has passed, preferably well after the last expected frost date. While this spinach vine can grow in partial shade, it will be more vigorous in full sun.
Malabar spinach is pretty resistant to most major pests found in the garden which makes it a very low maintenance vine. However, there have been reports of damage by root-knot nematodes. This pest will stunt the growth and vigor of the vine and cause leaf chlorosis, or yellowing of the leaves and stem. If you see these symptoms and suspect that there might be a nematode problem, check the soil to look for root swelling.
There are two organic nematicides on the market that you can use to treat root-knot nematodes although they will kill both harmful and beneficial nematodes in the soil. Some other alternatives involve fertilizing with neem seed meal, crab meal, or oyster shell flour to strengthen the resistance of plants and their roots to nematode damage in the first place. Applying beneficial nematodes to the soil to attack the root-knot nematodes is also an option.
Because Malabar spinach thrives in warm and moist conditions, they may be susceptible to some foliar disease including fungal leaf spots caused by Cercospora beticola. This is a pathogen most commonly found on sugar beets, spinach, and swiss chard. Cercospora beticola will cause small circular or oval grey spots with a dark purple or brown ring to appear on leaves. If left untreated, the pathogen might prematurely defoliate leaves and weaken the overall vigor of your plants.
Use best practices when watering to try to keep the leaves dry. Avoid overhead watering whenever possible. If you find fungal spots on leaves, remove the leaves immediately. Do not cook or eat leaves that have fungal leaf spots. Do not compost these leaves as the pathogen can survive in the soil for up to two years. If you live in a particularly humid area with high summer temperatures above 80 degrees, consider using an organic protectant fungicide as a prevention measure.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Can malabar spinach be eaten raw?
A: Yes, Malabar spinach can be eaten raw although it’s typically stir-fried or used in stew and curries.
Q: Is malabar spinach an annual or perennial?
A: Malabar spinach is very frost sensitive and loves the hot weather. In areas of the world that are tropical or subtropical, Malabar spinach can be grown as a perennial. Overwise, it’s grown as an annual.