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.
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.
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.
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. (Start seeds indoors from January 15 – April)
- 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.
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.
3. Give Malabar spinach room to grow
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.
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).
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.
The purple flesh of the ‘Basella rubra’ berry has a vibrant color and can be used to make a rich-colored dye.