Malabar spinach at UMass Research Farm (Photo by Frank Mangan)
Malabar spinach is in the Basellaceae family, not the spinach family. The taste is similar to spinach, however this crop is a very warm-season crop unlike standard spinach grown in the Northeastern US. This crop is native to tropical Asia, probably originating from India or Indonesia, and is extremely heat tolerant.
Malabar spinach is grown throughout the tropics as a perennial and in warmer temperate regions as an annual. There are two main species of Malabar spinach: Basella alba, which has green stems and thick fleshy leaves, and
Basella ruba which has red stems. The mucilaginous texture is especially useful as a thickener in soups and stews.
Other names for Malabar spinach include: Ceylon spinach, Vietnamese spinach (English); Saan Choy, Shan Tsoi, Luo Kai, Shu Chieh, Lo Kwai (Chinese); Tsuru Murasa Kai (Japanese); Mong Toi (Vietnamese); Paag-Prung (Thai); Genjerot, Jingga, Gendola (Indonesian).
Malabar spinach for sale at a farmers' market in Dorchester, Mass. (Photo by Frank Mangan)
Malabar spinach is a warm season crop and should be direct seeded when all danger of frost has passed and night temperatures are above 60 degrees F. Plant seeds 1 inch deep, 1 inch apart in rows in rows 2.5 feet apart. Thin germinated seedlings to 1 foot. Malabar spinach can also be started as transplants eight weeks before the last frost.
Malabar spinach is fast growing and tolerates high rainfall. This is a fast growing vine plant and produces best when trellised. Stem tips (6-8 inches) are harvested 55-70 days after seeding. Repeated harvests of new growth stems can be made through out the season.
There are many commercial seed sources for Malabar spinach, including Evergreen Seeds and Johnny's Selected Seeds
Home Gardening Vegetable Growing Guides
Vine, Vegetable (Warm Season) - Salad Greens
Also known as Indian spinach, Ceylon spinach, basella, vine spinach
The leaves from this heat-loving vine have a mild flavor and are used like spinach in salads and cooking. Extremely frost-sensitive. It creeps when temperatures are cool, but leaps when the mercury hits 90 F.
Site and Plant Characteristics
Part shade increases leaf size, but prefers hot weather and full sun.
tolerates damp soil
Grows well in a wide range of soils, but prefers moist, fertile soils, high in organic matter, pH 6.5 to 6.8. Requires consistent moisture to keep from flowering, which causes leaves to turn bitter.
Grown as an annual, but is perennial in frost-free areas.
Ease-of-care: moderately difficult
In most of New York, you must start plants inside and transplant after danger of frost has passed. Requires trellising.
Foliage color: dark green
Foliage texture: medium
Shape: climbing / vine
not native to North America - East Asia origins.
How to plant:
Propagate by seed, cuttings
Germination temperature: 65 F to 75 F
Days to emergence: 14 to 21 - Scarify seed to hasten germination.
Seed can be saved 4 years.
Maintenance and care:
In Zone 7 and warmer, direct seed 2 to 3 weeks after last frost date. In colder areas or to get an earlier crop, start seeds inside about 6 weeks before last frost.
Scarify seed (use a file, sharp knife or sandpaper to carefully cut through the tough seed coat) to speed germination, which may take 3 weeks or more.
Wait until soil has warmed and all danger of frost has passed before transplanting -- at least 2 to 3 weeks after last frost date. Space transplants about 12 inches apart.
Well-adapted to high temperatures, even into the 90s F. But growth is disappointing when temperatures stay below 80 F. Requires consistent moisture to keep from flowering, which causes bitterness in leaves.
Requires trellis or other support for twining vine. Can follow peas up the same trellis.
Browse Malabar spinach varieties at our Vegetable Varieties for Gardeners website.
Seed companies usually only list the species. Occasionally, you can find the variety ‘Rubra,’ which has purplish stems. It is sometimes listed as a separate species, Basella rubra.
Spinach, Malabar — Basella rubra L.1
James M. Stephens2
Malabar spinach is also known as Ceylon spinach, climbing spinach, gui, acelga trepadora, bretana, libato, vine spinach, and Malabar nightshade. The red leaf form belongs to the rubra species, while the green form is classified in the alba species.
Malabar is not a true spinach, but its leaves, which form on a vine, resemble spinach and are used in the same way. It comes from India, and is distributed widely in the tropics, particularly in moist lowlands. In Florida, it is rare, even in home gardens.
Here and in the tropics, it grows well in a variety of soils, seemingly without regard to fertility. Moisture is important and the plants make their best growth during warm, rainy periods. A small amount of shade seems to be beneficial, although open-sun culture does not present a serious problem.
Malabar spinach can be grown from seeds or cuttings. While not essential, the vine should be trellised. Two vines are sufficient to supply a small family all summer and fall. Vines are somewhat ornamental, so can be trained to climb over doorways for easy accessibility. The thick, fleshy leaves are cut off together with some length of stem to keep the plant pruned to a desired shape. Stems that are too tough to eat can be put back in the soil and rerooted. Plants started in Gainesville in August made excellent growth during the fall months.
When cooked, Malabar spinach is not as slick in texture as many greens, such as spinach. The Bengalis cook it with chopped onions, hot chilis, and a little mustard oil.
This document is HS671, one of a series of the Horticultural Sciences Department, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida. Original publication date May 1994. Reviewed March 2009. Visit the EDIS Web site at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu.
James M. Stephens, Professor, Horticultural Sciences Department, Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville FL 32611.
Aug 12, 2010
Loving the heat and humidity. This is really starting to vine...