Thursday, October 20, 2011

Permaculture Plants: Malabar Spinach

Photos of my Malabar Spinach

Common Name: Malabar Spinach
Scientific Name: Basella alba, Basella rubra
Family: Basellaceae

The tender leaves and shoots of Malabar Spinach are great fresh!

Description:
Malabar spinach is not actually related to spinach at all.  It is a heat-loving, vining, perennial plant with heart-shaped leaves from the tropics and sub-tropics.  It is often grown in more Temperate Climates as a heat-loving annual substitute for spinach.  It is considered a succulent (a plant that stores water in their leaves and stems), and it is used much like spinach, although I believe the taste is not very similar when raw.  Although when cooked, it does indeed taste like spinach.

It is said that Malabar Spinach has a mucilaginous texture.  This has a lot of negative connotations.  I think a better word is "slippery".  It actually has a very pleasant mouth feel to it.  I would describe it as crunchy and juicy when raw.  The taste is slightly peppery with a bit of a citrusy flavor with hints of earthy spinach to it.  Apparently, the red stemmed version (Basella rubra) is more mild in flavor than the green (Basella alba).  I have only grown and tasted Basella rubra, so I cannot speak from experience on the all green version.  As I said above, once cooked, it tastes much like spinach, maybe a little stronger.

History:
The name, Malabar, likely refers to the northern areas of Kerala state in India.  This at least is fitting, since it is thought that Malabar Spinach originated in India (although some research suggests Indonesia).  It is a very popular green vegetable in India, Southeast Asia, China, and Africa.

Trivia:
  • This is a great salad green replacement when the temperatures soar in the summer and our lettuces are wilting and ready to bolt.
  • Malabar Spinach is very high in vitamins A and C.
  • Malabar Spinach is high in calcium and iron.


Malabar Spinach using my fig tree as a trellis.

USING THIS PLANT
Primary Uses:
  • Fresh - Young leaves and the top 5-8 inches of shoots can be eaten raw.  Used in salads.
  • Cooked - Older leaves should be cooked as they have a rougher texture.  It is more like spinach in look and flavor when cooked.  It holds its shape a lot better than spinach when it is cooked.  Can be substituted for cooked spinach or chard.


Secondary Uses:
  • Thickening agent.  Here is where the "mucilaginous" part of Malabar Spinach is very helpful, kind of like okra, in soups, stews, and curries.
  • The red-purple juice from the berries can be used a a food dye and ink - it will stain!


Yield: Higher with more heat and with more pinching off of shoots and flowers
Harvesting: Whenever you want!  
Storage: Should be used immediately.  Does not seem to store well for more than a few days after picked.

The deep red vines and pink flowers contrast beautifully with the dark green leaves.

DESIGNING WITH THIS PLANT
USDA Hardiness Zone: Killed by frost, although some report established plants can withstand 5 F (-14 C).

Plant Type: Vine
Leaf Type: Deciduous 
Forest Garden Use: Fast growing, heat loving annual vine in Temperate Climates.  Perennial vine in Sub-Tropical, Tropical Climates, heated greenhouses, or possibly as a potted indoor plant.  
Cultivars/Varieties: Basella alba is all green.  Basella rubra has red stems, is prettier, and is likely just a variety of Basella alba.
Flowering: Mid-Summer

Malabar Spinach is a fast growing vine.

PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS OF THIS PLANT
Size: 5-6 feet in a summer, easily.  Up to 12 feet in a long summer, and some report up to 30 feet if grown as a perennial.
Growth Rate: Fast if there is heat.  Large plant in 8-10 weeks.

Older leaves are a great cooked spinach or chard substitute.


GROWING CONDITIONS FOR THIS PLANT
Light: Prefers full sun
Shade: Tolerates light shade (about 50%), but grows much slower
Moisture: Medium
pH: Prefers fairly neutral soil (6.1 - 7.8)

Special Considerations for Growing: 
Give it something to grow on (trellis or tree) and your yields will be higher, easier, and free from dirt.

Propagation:  Pretty easily grown from seed.  Some will recommend soaking the seed in water overnight to improve germination rates, but I have not found that to be necessary.  Seems to prefer direct seeding when temperatures remain above 60 F (15 C), but I have transplanted with success.  Seeds can be saved from ripened fruit (small dark purple berries) - clean and dry the seeds.  Malabar Spinach is also easily grown from cuttings as it roots easily.

Maintenance:
Minimal.  Cut back severely to keep it in check if you live in a frost-free zone.  If there are no nematodes, then this plant has almost no pests.

Concerns:
  • If you live in a frost-free area, this vine can grow like crazy.  Some may call it invasive.
  • Reportedly susceptible to nematodes.
  • Reportedly susceptible to a fungus that destroys the leaves and can infect beets and chard as well.

11 comments:

  1. Wow, I never would have guessed that this was a perennial! Now I REALLY need to get a few of these going in my back yard.

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  2. Hi John, I am Jake's Aunt! Great pictures. Isn't this a beautiful plant?

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  3. I had bought a tropical spinach plant here in Florida, which did well for a while until it contracted a fungus that killed the whole plant. In the future, do you know how to kill this fungus, as I tried many different organic products which I had no luck with. Thanks!

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  4. where can you buy this, and can you grow it from seed. I live in the center of Ohio, does it grow here.

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  5. Here is one source: http://www.seedsavers.org/onlinestore/spinach/Spinach-Red-Malabar.html

    It will grow as an annual in Ohio. It is a fun plant!

    John

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  6. We live in Hawaii and these plants grow great. Tried it stir fried with pasta last night and we enjoyed it.

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  7. I'm trying it from seed as we speak - and I have some big tubs that I will put trellis's in for it. I may attempt overwintering rooted cuttings, and see how that helps get a head-start next spring. Great article.

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  8. It is is very nice information about malabar spinach @ http://agrifarming.in

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  9. I have read everything about the leaf and different types of plants, but I still haven't found out if the berries are edible on their own. Will someone let me know??

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  10. Great plant for the hot and humid summer. Edible amaranth will also grow under these conditions - here are my experiences http://earthlychow.com/vegetable-greens-hot-humid-summer-malabar-spinach-edible-amaranth

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  11. what about permaculture on the yield of odinery spinach as a vegetable???

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