Malabar spinach (Basella alba [or rubra]) is a unique climbing vine. Though it’s not a true spinach, it tastes the same as regular spinach.
I have to admit, I love my greens. But in the heat of summer, lettuce, kale, collards, and chard all turn bitter, bolt, or dry out. Spinach is the worst; it seems to hate the sun! I found a few varieties that do better, but still not great. Then I came across Malabar spinach – a versatile and healthy option that grows well in the summer.
What is Malabar Spinach?
Malabar spinach (Basella alba or Basella rubra) is not a true spinach, but rather a climbing vine in a class by itself. Other common names include Vine Spinach, Red Vine Spinach, Creeping Spinach, and Ceylon Spinach. Even though it’s not a true spinach, it has the same taste.
The variety Alba has white flowers and green vines, while the variety Rubra has pinkish flowers and purplish-red vines. I haven’t noticed a difference in taste between the two.
The leaves and stem contain mucilage, so it can appear slimy when broken off the vine. This mucilage is a great source of soluble fiber, much like pectin in apples.
The vine will grow rapidly in the heat of summer all the way through fall. It will die out in the winter, but often the seeds (if left on the vine) will fall to the ground and sprout the following spring. I’ve had plants in the same pots with a trellis for a few years now and they keep reseeding year after year. You can also collect the seeds and plant them next spring if you wish.
Malabar spinach is high in Vitamin A (100 grams contains roughly 8,000 units), Vitamin C, iron, and calcium. It has a high amount of protein for a plant and is also a good source of magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium.
Another good reason to eat Malabar spinach is that it has a good amount of antioxidants, particularly beta carotene and lutein, those naturally occurring chemicals that help keep your cells from aging. Rubra seems to be slightly higher in antioxidants, probably due to the purple color.
How to Grow Malabar Spinach
Unlike true spinach, which does better in the fall and spring, Malabar spinach loves the heat of summer. I soak my seeds overnight to give them a head start.
Plant in well-drained, rich soil in full sunlight. It prefers elevations of 1,500 ft or higher, but I grew it in Minnesota (728 ft) and it did fine. Be sure to water it well and keep it moist. In dry climates, you may need to mist it occasionally as it prefers humidity. The pH of the soil should be slightly alkaline, or around 7-8. Provide a trellis or twine for it to climb on – a tomato cage works great. I made the mistake of letting mine get into the trees one year and it was really difficult to harvest! Keeping it contained is the best thing to do for ease of use.
There don’t seem to be many pests or diseases that invade Malabar spinach, so minimal use of something like neem oil is probably not necessary.
Don’t forget to leave your seeds on the vine or collect the seeds at the end of summer. You’ll have a whole new crop waiting to be sown!
Cooking With Malabar Spinach
Malabar spinach can be used raw, in salads, or as a stand-alone vegetable. You can also use it like spinach in soups and stews. Steamed Malabar spinach is great and will yield more than conventional spinach due to its fleshy nature.
Buttery Malabar Spinach Recipe
My favorite way to use Malabar spinach is like many other greens I’ve cooked. It’s steamed, then braised with acid added at the end.
- 3-4 cups Malabar spinach, washed
- 2 tablespoons butter (or try coconut oil for a different flavor)
- pinch of Himalayan pink salt
- freshly ground pepper (find organic black peppercorns here)
- juice from one lime, to taste
Add a small amount of water to a deep pan and heat on medium. Add the Malabar spinach leaves. Steam until leaves are wilted and tender. Drain off any remaining liquid. Melt the butter in the bottom of the pan with spinach and add salt and pepper. Toss to coat all of the leaves. Braise for just a few minutes with the liquid from the butter. When it’s done, remove from heat and transfer to a bowl. Squeeze the juice of fresh lime over it and toss again. Serve warm.
Tip: use Malabar spinach in our spinach artichoke dip recipe!
Have you ever grown Malabar spinach? Have you ever eaten it? If so, share your experience!