Place: India

Uses: Stir fried, soups, stews, curries

Fun fact: The immature flower shoots are delicious and reminiscent of Asian baby corn.

Most gardeners love to grow spinach, but sadly, it falters when the weather begins to get pleasantly warm. Fortunately, there’s a crop that yields similar (but more gelatinous) leaves all summer long. It's called Basella or Malabar spinach.

Malabar Spinach: Origin and History

As its name suggests, Malabar spinach is thought to have originated along India's storied Malabar Coast. Not all experts agree, though — Indonesia and even East Africa are cited as other places of origin for the plant. The plant has been in cultivation long enough that botanists really aren’t sure just where it originated. And it has certainly been around long enough to have worked its way into traditional cuisines in India, Indochina, Indonesia, the Philippine Islands and, arguably, eastern Africa. The genus name, Basella, derives from its local name, which occurs in various forms throughout the region. The first reference to Basella in English dates to 1691, but it wasn't grown much until the 19th century.

In its Descriptions des Plantes Potageres of 1856, French seed house Vilmorin-Andrieux and Co. listed three varieties: Basella alba (white), Basella rubra (red), and Basella cordifolia (which it described as “very large leafed, from China.”) Fearing Burr included it in his Field and Garden Vegetables of America, published in 1863. The USDA introduced two types of Malabar spinach, known as Ceylon spinach, into the U.S. in 1899, acquired from Vilmorin. One, white basella, was recommended as a summer vegetable and as an ornamental for arbors and outbuildings. The other, Basella cordifolia, had heart-shaped leaves whose flavor was described as pear-like when cooked.

It has also been exported to tropical regions around the globe, and for good reason!

Malabar Spinach on the gray tile floor.

Malabar Spinach

How to Grow Malabar Spinach?

The plant, sometimes called land kelp, is delicious, nutritious, productive and it thrives in heat and humidity. A perennial vine that in the tropics reaches up to 30 feet in length, Malabar spinach yields scads of edible, succulent leaves as long as the weather remains warm. In the tropics, the plant can grow up to a foot a day!

Happily, Malabar spinach also grows well as an annual in most of the country, though it won't overwinter outdoors anywhere in the U.S. except in favored, nearly tropical locations in the Deep South, Florida, California and Hawaii. From an early spring indoor start, the vines will climb to eight feet or more in a summer. Leaves can be harvested starting some 70 days from sowing, and harvest continues until cool fall weather shuts the plants down. (The plant suffers whenever nighttime temps drop below 50 degrees F.)

Give your plants full sun, rich soil and nothing but warmth, warmth, warmth, and you'll be rewarded in turn with a nearly endless supply of thick "spinach" leaves for months on end. And what leaves they are! Our friend William Woys Weaver once described the flavor as “spinach with a hint of brandy and okra.” The leaves, young growing tips and even immature flower clusters are all eaten both raw and cooked.

All parts of the plant are mucilaginous in varying degrees. Cooking often de-emphasizes the gelatinous texture. But cooked, mature flower stems are downright slimy, so they are usually used raw, as a garnish.

Malabar spinach coconut curry

Malabar Spinach Coconut Curry

After flowering, the plant develops dark purple berries. These are very juicy and the deep purple juice is used as a dye, both for foods and other materials like cloth. True to Basella's tropical origins, it will not flower under long days, such as we have in most of the U.S. in summer. The plant just goes its way, churning out leaves; it will not flower until the day length has shortened to 13 hours of sunshine per day.

The berries are not usually eaten, but in regions of India where the plant is grown, the plump seeds they contain are sometimes used in dal. To save seed, berries can be harvested and the fleshy portion removed by fermentation. But often they are just dried thoroughly and stored for later planting. In the warmer third of the country, the berries will also occasionally drop from the plant (or be transported elsewhere by birds) and Malabar spinach self sows. This trait has given rise to concerns about possible invasiveness, and gardeners in those areas should be cautious in planting it, or should consider taking steps to limit its spread.

How to Cook Malabar Spinach?

Malabar spinach comes in two forms — Basella alba, a “white” (really pale green) variety, and the red Basella rubra or Basella alba var rubra. The two forms were once thought to constitute two distinct species but are now considered to be different color forms of a single species. The deep red color of rubra has been shown to contain a lot of antioxidants, though these are destroyed by cooking, as is the red coloration.

Malabar spinach soup with pork in a bowl

Malabar Spinach Soup with Pork

The leaves are super nutritious, being rich in vitamins A and C, and they’re a good source of iron and calcium. They do contain oxalic acid just like true spinach, so sensitive persons will need to exercise the same cautions with Malabar spinach. The leaves are used both raw and cooked, and the uses are often similar to those of true spinach. They can be added to salads or sandwiches. They make a wonderful addition to soups, curries, stir fries and other such dishes. The leaves can also be substituted for true spinach in quiches, omelets, pot pies and savory turnovers.

Would you like to discover other unique herbs and plants? Then explore our shop for a wide selection of vegetable and plant seeds and elevate your culinary creations to new heights!