Looking for a summer spinach alternative? Learn how to grow Malabar spinach – a fast-growing, heat-loving, beautiful vine with large, glossy, succulent-like leaves. 

Unlike traditional greens that grow through the cooler months of the year, Malabar spinach is planted in the spring and harvested through the fall.

How to grow Malabar spinach

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What is Malabar spinach?

Malabar spinach is not a true spinach, but instead from the plant family Basellaceae, the Madeira-vine family of flowering plants. 

The 'Basella rubra’ variety has green leaves, light pink flowers, and purple vines.

The ‘Basella rubra’ variety has green leaves, light pink flowers, and purple vines.

The 'Basella alba' variety has green leaves, white flowers and green vines.

TheBasella alba variety has green leaves, white flowers and green vines.

Malabar spinach packs a nutritional punch

Popeye could have chosen Malabar spinach for its nutritional value. It is high in Vitamins A and C, as well as iron and calcium. It is a good source of plant-based protein, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and antioxidants.

Red Malabar Spinach - Basella rubra

6 tips for how to grow Malabar spinach

1. Grow Malabar spinach from seeds, transplants, or cuttings

Malabar spinach prefers moist, fertile soil that is high in organic matter. The plants prefer full sun, but can be grown in shady areas. With less sun, the leaf size increases, but the overall growth rate slows. Wait to plant heat-loving Malabar spinach until the soil warms up. Plant from March through May in the low desert of Arizona.

  • To grow from seeds – In USDA zones 7 or warmer, plant seeds ¼” deep and 12” apart when soil temperatures reach 65℉ – 85℉.
  • To grow from transplants – In cool regions, start seeds indoors 6 weeks before the last frost, and wait to transplant until the soil has warmed and there is no chance of frost. Plant seedlings about a foot apart.
  • To grow from cuttings – Trim the cutting to about 6”  and cut it just below a node. Pot the vine in a growing medium or potting soil, and allow it to root. Alternatively, plant directly in the desired area. Be sure to keep the area well-watered to allow roots to form. Cuttings call also be rooted in water and then planted. 
How to grow Malabar spinach

2. Don’t let Malabar spinach dry out

Malabar spinach is a tropical plant and needs consistent moisture throughout the growing season. For best flavor keep soil evenly moist. 

In the warmest areas of the low desert, it may need water every day. Malabar spinach will go to flower and set seed (which can make it bitter) if it doesn’t receive enough moisture.

How to grow Malabar spinach

3. Give Malabar spinach room to grow

In warm areas, vines often reach 10 to 20 feet or longer. Although they can be left to sprawl on the ground, the vines are best grown on a sturdy trellis. The vine is highly ornamental, and is a beautiful and tasty addition to a garden arch, trellis or even a ladder.

How to grow Malabar spinach

4. Harvest Malabar spinach all season

Harvest the leaves at any point during the growing season once the vines have at least 8-10 leaves. Cut leaves from the outside first, being sure to leave at least 6 leaves to allow the plant to grow.

For longer vines, allow individual Malabar spinach vines to get longer before harvesting. To encourage branching and a bushier plant, cut back stems earlier. Malabar spinach is best enjoyed soon after harvesting, and does not store well.

5. Enjoy Malabar spinach a variety of ways

The edible leaves of Malabar spinach have a similar taste to spinach with a mild peppery, citrus flavor.

Eat young leaves for best flavor. Enjoy Malabar spinach raw or mixed in a salad. Cook it and use it similar to spinach, kale or Swiss chard in stir fries, and summer soups.

When cooked, Malabar spinach has a mucilaginous nature, meaning it can be a little slimy tasting (adding a small amount of vinegar helps reduce this).

How to grow Malabar spinach - malabar spinach berries, seeds

6. Harvest the seeds and get creative

At the end of the season, Malabar spinach sets flowers, and those flowers turn into deep purple berries (drupes) with seeds inside. Dry the berries whole and plant the seeds the following year. Malabar spinach often reseeds itself from dropped berries as well. Allow volunteer seedlings to sprout, and then transplant them where you want the seedlings to grow in your garden.

How to grow Malabar spinach

The purple flesh of the Basella rubra’ berry has a vibrant color and can be used to make a rich-colored dye.

How to grow Malabar spinach

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