I learned about this plant when my mom first showed it to me in her garden. She called it climbing spinach, and it was growing all over her garden. Others call it heat tolerant spinach, or vine spinach. Turns out that Malabar spinach is not an actual spinach plant. Basella alba is an edible perennial vine in the family Basellaceae. But the leaves look similar to spinach, and it can be similarly used in recipes, which is how it ended up with that name.
True spinach is often hard to grow in warm climates as the summer heats up. But not so for Malabar spinach. If you live in a warm climate, this spinach can potentially come back the following year as a perennial. But if you live somewhere that it freezes, you’ll replant annually.
If you have never eaten Malabar spinach, you will find that it has a mild peppery flavor and makes an adequate substitute for regular spinach. It can be eaten in salads, stir fries or soups. It’s also an easy vegetable to grab a few leaves and toss into a shake. Malabar spinach is high in vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, and calcium.
How to Grow and Care for Malabar Spinach
Malabar spinach is a climbing plant. It grows best in full sun. It prefers continuously moist soil and a PH level of 6.5 to 6.8. It can be grown in pots or in a garden with a trellis or up a wall. If the soil becomes dry it will flower and the leaves have a much more bitter flavor.
Malabar spinach can be grown from seed. To start from seed, plant the seeds indoors 6-8 weeks before the last frost in your area. Seeds should germinate in 10 days to 3 weeks. If you want to speed up your seedling’s growth, you can either soak them in water overnight before planting, or use a knife to open up the hard exterior seed coating.
Seedlings can be transplanted into the garden once the soil has warmed and should be placed a foot apart. Plants will really take off in the heat of the summer, above 80 degrees. They do best with some type of vertical support because they can grow to be 10-12 feet high. They can also ramble along the ground. They are very attractive so they make a nice addition to your ornamental landscape.
If you want to spread this plant quickly around your garden, or share with friends Malabar roots easily. New plants will sprout up wherever the stems touch moist soil. It can easily propagated from tip cuttings which root readily in water.
Once temperatures fall below 60 growth will slow down. If you don’t get a frost, the plant can come back each year.
Malabar Pests and Problems
This is one of the few plants that is both easy to grown and amazingly free of any pests and diseases, which is great news if you typically have to deal with a lot of pests in your garden.
How many plants can make that claim? There aren’t many. It’s an excellent plant for beginner gardeners in warm climates.
Ways to Prepare Malabar Spinach
Malabar spinach works well in any salad where you would use regular spinach. It is traditionally used in soups as a thickener.
In the Philippines, Malabar spinach is commonly used as a main ingredient in a dish called Utan, which is served over rice. We found a recipe here (which refers to Malabar as spinach or malunggay leaves). It is usually cooked with sardines, onions, garlic, and parsley.
To learn more about Malabar Spinach check out these helpful resources:
Malabar Spinach from the University of Wisconsin Extension.
Malabar Spinach from Tesxas A&M Agrilife Extension.
Heat Tolerant Malibar Spinach from Dave’s Garden
If you’ve tried growing Malabar spinach let us know how you liked it.