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.
Disclaimer: this post contains affiliate links. See my disclosure policy for more information.
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 alba‘ variety has green leaves, white flowers and green vines.
Malabar spinach packs a nutritional punch
It is high in Vitamins A and C, iron, and calcium. It is a good source of plant-based protein, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and antioxidants.
Popeye could have chosen Malabar spinach for its nutritional value.
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 shady areas. The leaf size increases with less sun, 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 – March)
- To grow from seeds – In USDA zones seven 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 can 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
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.
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 in 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.
Save the seeds by drying the berries whole. 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.