Spinach is associated with spring and is an integral part of spring salad mixes, and rightfully so—spinach does best in cool weather. In the summer, the combination of long daylight hours and heat causes spinach to bolt. If growing it in the spring or fall is not enough to satisfy your appetite for spinach, consider Malabar spinach as a substitute.
Malabar spinach is a tropical leafy green that was named after a coastal region in southwestern India. It is botanically not a true spinach yet it resembles it. The dark green, glossy, oval or heart-shaped leaves, and shoots can be eaten raw in salads or cooked. The taste of Malabar spinach is mild, similar to spinach, with peppery notes and a hint of citrus. Once cooked though, the texture is different from spinach. The thick, semi-succulent leaves become gluey, not unlike okra.
Malabar spinach grows vertically and needs a trellis to support its fast growth. In hot climates with frost-free winters, you can grow it as a perennial, otherwise it’s an annual vegetable just like spinach. It is not only an edible plant, but also an attractive addition to a garden bed, especially the red-leaf variety.
|Common names||Malabar spinach, Indian spinach, Ceylon spinach, vine spinach, climbing spinach|
|Botanical Name||Basella alba|
|Size||6 to 10 ft. long, 2 to 3 ft. wide|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun|
|Soil Type||Loamy, sandy, moist but well-drained|
|Soil pH||Neutral to acidic (6.5 to 6.8)|
|Hardiness Zones||7-10, USA|
|Native Area||Tropical south and southeast Asia, Indian subcontinent|
Malabar Spinach Care
In terms of care, Malabar spinach is undemanding, with one big exception: it needs constant moisture.
While Malabar spinach does well in full sun, it can tolerate partial shade. In fact, light or dappled shade may increase the size of its leaves and make them more succulent.
Not finicky in terms of soil requirements, Malabar spinach can grow in a wide range of soils. Well-draining, fertile, sandy loam, and high in organic matter is ideal, but it can also tolerate damp soil, as long as it is not soggy.
Malabar spinach needs water. In dry conditions, it will flower prematurely, which can turn the leaves bitter. In the absence of frequent and ample rainfall, it requires regular watering. Too much precipitation, on the other hand, is usually not a problem, unless the soil has poor drainage.
Temperature and Humidity
As a tropical plant, Malabar spinach is extremely frost-sensitive; not only will it die in cold temperatures, it needs heat to grow. At daytime temperatures below 80 degrees F and nighttime temperatures below 60 degrees F, you won’t see much growth. The plant only starts thriving when the temperature exceeds 90 degrees F.
Like most greens, Malabar spinach needs a high-nitrogen fertilizer for healthy leaf growth. Feed it once at the initial planting time with a granular, slow-release fertilizer, and again about every three to four weeks during the growing season.
How to Plant Malabar Spinach
When to plant Malabar spinach depends on your climate. In zone 7 and higher, it can be direct seeded in the garden two to three weeks after last frost date . In all other locations, start it indoors six to eight weeks before the last spring frost.
Regardless of how you start Malabar spinach, select a location where it gets plenty of sunlight and can grow tall, without its shade negatively affecting other plants. Or, plant it in a spot where the shade it casts is actually a good thing, for example on lettuce that does better with extra protection against the scorching summer sun. Because the vines of Malabar spinach grow quickly, it lends itself to companion planting for heat-sensitive plants.
The space requirements of Malabar spinach are relatively low because it grows vertically, which also makes it suitable for container planting.
To direct seed Malabar spinach in garden soil, plant the seeds one-quarter inch deep, 1 to 2 inches apart, leaving 3 feet between rows.
The vines need support to grow upright, such as a trellis, chain-link fence, poles, or a teepee. If left to trail and sprawl on the ground, it can overgrow other crops.
Green Malabar Spinach vs. Red Malabar Spinach
There are two common species of Malabar spinach: green malabar spinach (Basella alba, or Basella cordifolia) and Red Malabar spinach (Basella rubra). Both varieties are edible.
Basella alba with its dark green leaves is primarily grown as a garden vegetable whereas Basella rubra with its purple or burgundy stems and oval to round leaves with pink veins is more commonly grown as an ornamental. One of the reasons why green Malabar spinach is the preferred variety for eating is that when cooked, the red color of the stems gets lost. For these reasons, if you want to use red Malabar spinach for cooking, using it raw is best.
To harvest larger, more succulent leaves, wait until the plant has reached full maturity 70 to 85 days after planting.
Cut individual leaves, stems, and vine tips using garden shears or scissors. Harvest only as much as you need at any given time. Regular harvesting encourages more leaf growth so instead of taking an entire plant, harvest smaller amounts more often. In the right conditions, Malabar spinach grows vigorously so overharvesting is unlikely.
Malabar spinach can be stored in a cool place between 50 to 60 degrees for two to five days but it’s best garden-fresh.
How to Grow Malabar Spinach in Containers
It is feasible to grow Malabar spinach in containers, under two conditions: The container must be large and heavy enough to support a trellis or other support and won’t topple over under the weight of the vines, or in windy conditions. Also, Malabar spinach needs to be kept moist at all times. As container plants dry out even faster than garden soil, potted Malabar spinach requires even more frequent watering.
Like all vines, Malabar spinach can become densely entangled and unruly. Once its takes off, regular harvesting might not be enough to keep it in shape and additional pruning of leaves and the fleshy stems might be required.
Unpruned vines may reach a length of 30 feet. By pinching the tips of the vines, you encourage the plant to branch out.
Propagating Malabar Spinach
Malabar spinach can be propagated from vine tip cuttings and stems. Either plant them directly in most soil and keep them moist, or let them root in water first before planting.
Another way of propagating Malabar spinach is to let it flower and go into seed, which happens in dry conditions or when there is less than 12 hours of daylight. Collect the fully dried seeds and store them in a cool, dry place until planting the following year. The seeds are viable for four years.
How to Grow Malabar Spinach From Seed
Regardless of whether you direct seed Malabar spinach in your garden or start it indoors in seed flats, the hard seeds of Malabar spinach require pretreating to improve germination. You can either carefully crack the seed coat with a file, sharp knife or sandpaper, or soak the seeds in water overnight before planting.
You can plant the seeds in your garden after all danger of frost has passed, which is the recommended method in zone 7 and higher, or you can start the seeds indoors in cell flats six to eight weeks before your last frost date. With either method, plant the seeds one-quarter inch deep and follow the general instructions for seed starting.
The optimal temperature for germination is between 65 and 75 degrees F. It takes two to three weeks for the seeds to germinate.
Seedlings started indoors need to be hardened off and can be transplanted in the garden when the soil has warmed, about two to three weeks after the last frost date. Space the seedlings 6 inches apart. For seeds started in the garden, thin the seedlings to 6 inches apart. As the seedlings get established, thin out any extra seedlings so the plants are eventually about 1 foot apart.
In climates where Malabar spinach won’t survive the winter, you can overwinter the plant indoors and replant it outdoors the following spring.
You need a large, sunny window and enough space to accommodate the plant’s vertical growth. Take cuttings of your plant in the late summer and root them in a container with a trellis or another form of support. To keep its growth under control, harvest the leaves or prune it as described above.
Common Pests and Plant Diseases
Malabar spinach is relatively resistant to insect and disease damage but the warm and wet conditions that are required for the plant’s growth can lead to fungal diseases.
A most common problem is Cercospora beticola, a fungal leaf spot that also affects sugar beets, spinach, and Swiss chard. The leaves of infected plants have small circular or oval grey spots with a dark purple or brown ring. If you detect these symptoms on your Malabar spinach, remove the leaves promptly and destroy them in the trash (do not compost them) to prevent the fungus from spreading further, which may eventually defoliate the plant. Leaves infected with fungal leaf spot are not suitable for consumption.
How long does Malabar spinach take to grow?
The days to maturity range between 70 to 85 days after planting from seed. When grown in ideal conditions, baby greens can be harvested in as little as 50 days.
Does Malabar spinach need a trellis?
Most definitely. It is a climbing vine that should be grown on a trellis or support to prevent it from turning into a rambling mess on the ground.
Can you eat Malabar spinach berries?
Although in Asia where Malabar spinach originates, the berries are used as a food colorant, there is no data or research about the safe consumption or nutritional value of consuming the berries.
Why is my Malabar spinach turning yellow?
The yellow leaves and stems on Malabar spinach may be caused by root-knot nematodes, a pest that is not visible to the naked eye but can be detected by the swollen, distorted areas it causes in the roots. Ways to get rid of root-knot nematodes include crop rotation, interplanting marigolds, and amending the soil with organic matter to increase the presence of microorganisms that feed on the pest.
Malabar Spinach Growing Guide. Cornell University.
Florida Cultivation Guide for Malabar Spinach. University of Florida, UF/IFAS Extension.
Root-Knot Nematode. Wisconsin Horticulture, Division of Extension.