Stunning (Malabar) Spinach

“I don’t like spinach, and I’m glad I don’t, because if I liked it I’d eat it, and I just hate it.” ~ Clarence Darrow

It tastes as delicious as it looks....but this is not your English spinach!
It tastes as delicious as it looks….but this is not your English Spinach!

I don’t like English Spinach.

Perhaps it is because I’m not inclined to sado-masochism.

I mean, it all starts nicely enough…

The Spinach leaves shoot up from from the seed.  I harden them off a bit until it’s time to set them free to grow in the garden bed.

But then, their tender young leaves are just bait for bugs and slugs, to which they  appear to willingly submit.

The Spinach that survives the pests, falls over in the first waft of heat.  Spinach is so tiresome, if it doesn’t get water a few times a day, it pouts wilts and then grows bitter.

Then, the  1 in 100 Spinach plant that survives the bugs and heat,  promptly bolts to seed when you are not paying close enough attention.

So, if you enjoyed 50 Shades of Grey, English Spinach is for you.  Me?  It’s just not welcome in my garden.  I don’t need the high maintenance and drama it demands.

Thankfully, there is an alternative that is just as delicious, twice as robust and infinitely more beautiful.  It’s also not really a Spinach at all.

Malabar Spinach. Or specifially,  Basella alba.

Also known as Indian Spinach or Climbing Spinach, it is a tropical perrenial. Malabar Spinach is a perfect for me.  It loves my sandy soils. It thrives in my constant heat.  It doesn’t mind a bit of shade. It is valiantly resistant to pests and it quickly scrambles to over any ugly screen or wall that needs beautifying.  I love the Red ‘Rubra’ Malabar Spinach, the glossy green leaves contrast with the lurid red stems.  A green stemmed variety is also available.  When all other salad greens are vaporised by our summer heat, this sturdy plant just gets on with it.

It wasn't too long before my upcycled cane bedhead trellis was completely covered with Malabar spinach....
It wasn’t too long before my upcycled cane bedhead trellis was completely covered with Malabar spinach….

Malabar Spinach is ridicuolously good for you, containing phenolic phytochemicals and boasting antioxidant properties.   Malabar Spinach is packed full of  vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, soluble fibre and is high in protein per calorie.  It’s young picked leaves are tender and perfect in a salad or juice.  The larger leaves are succulent, with a slightly mucilaginous texture, perfect for thickening soups, curries and stir-frys.

If you want to invite Malabar Spinach into your garden, you’ll need a warm climate, sandy soil and up to 10 feet of trellis that it can ramble over.  It likes a good drink but can handle a bit of neglect if you have regular rainfall.  The peppercorn sized seeds germinate quickly.  In fact, Malabar Spinach will self sow so prolifically  you might need a few chickens to help you eat all the extra.  I have given away many seeds and seedlings to friends keen to give it a place to ramble.

Red Malabar spinach seedling
A young Red Malabar spinach plant

If you are inclined, pinch all the small white flowers off the plant to encourage leaf growth. Frankly, I gave up on mine, simply because it would have easily been a full time job.  However it appears the flowers and seed don’t really do much to dent the enthusiastic nature of this lovely plant.  As long as the leaves are regularly harvested it will continue to thrive and look absolutely stunning. The seeds are encased in a small berry fruit that stains all it touches with an assertive purple mark.  For that reason alone, the kids love making “paint” with the berry fruit.  The Malabar Spinach berry fruit stain can also be used as a natural food colouring and is non-toxic.

Have you grown Malabar Spinach?  How did it go?

UPDATE January 2014: Thanks to everyone who requested seeds.  I have requests for seeds all year, and have fulfilled them when I could.  But, the offer was so popular, that I have had to cancel it for my own expense!  In the future, I may to limited releases of free seeds for a few varieties, so please watch this space.


  1. says

    Hi Melissa,
    The Perth climate is obviously much harsher than Melbourne as spinach goes nuts at my place and I really just plant it and let it go. I got so sick of a plant that had been in the ground for 2 years that I got my hubby to pull it out. I couldn’t keep up with it!
    I love spinach and am sure that now you have a variety that works well for you that you will too. It is so versatile, I chuck it in loads of meals. I love the look of your spinach climber. Very nice :)

    • says

      Thanks for dropping by Kyrstie!

      The malabar spinach “trellis” is a vintage wicker bead head I found at a garage sale for $5. Bargain! So glad I don’t have to miss out on “spinach” just because not blessed with an obliging climate.
      But I do keep browsing those real estate pages for cooler climate. Melbourne’s certainly a contender!

  2. says

    Hi! Melissa. Found your site when looking for more information on Malabar Spinach (Basella Rubra)
    I’d been asked if the “berries” were edible, and I just didn’t know.So thank you for your information.
    The site looks most interesting, and you are an entertaining writer. I’ll check out more pages.
    Rainbow Blessings!

    • says

      Thank you, and I’m thrilled you found my information useful and entertaining!
      I’m not sure if the seeds are edible. But my kids are attracted to them simply for the fantastic mess they make and get covered in the purple dye that makes them look like they have been dipped in mercurochrome. They don’t get a rash or any irritation. But we have a rule in my garden which is “Don’t put it in your mouth until you ask Mummy!”

      Now the weather in my part of the world is cooling, I’ll be populating the garden with more interesting bits & pieces! Stay tuned :)


      • Jody-Anne says

        Our summers are so brutal, and while i LOVE spinich, I do not grow it anymore, even over winter. Between the pests, and cold one day and, oh 26 and sunny the next near the end of winter and 7 leaves eaten by us, if that, yeah I’m over it! However, I would be interested in buying seeds from you, not for free. Can this be arranged? Will pay postage, seeds and whatever, I just want a vigorous healthy and healthful plant that can cope with the pillaging I do!

      • Bianca says

        The berries are edible. They do not taste sweet like you would think anything called “berry” should. They taste like the green leaves. And they stain your fingers like the dickens. I haven’t really found any recipes for them yet, but I’m searching.

  3. Nancy Brenton says

    I bought some seeds at Bunnings and thought they were expensive 10 for $3.50 I think. Just wanted to see how it grew here in Wollongong. It did OK but wasn’t sure how to use it. Now I’ve read some ideas will grow it again. My vines are covered in seeds – do I just pick and dry them and plant again and give the excess away?

  4. Catherine says

    Hi, just came across your site when searching for info about whether malabar spinach would make a good fabric dye. It grows like mad in my Melbourne garden and we eat it in salads and as a cooked vegetable.

    Did it stain your children’s clothes? And did the stain wash out?

    I was oing to add your interesting -looking blog to my Feedly, so I could keep up with what you’re writing, but I don’t see any posts that are recent. Are you intending to add more? I’d love to read more of your thoughts and experiences.

    • says

      Hi Catherine,

      Thanks for stopping by. Yes, the malabar spinach berries did stain! I researched beetroot stain removal, and started by flushing most of it out with cold water and soaking it overnight in an enzyme solution before washing as normal. Then drying on the line in full sun seemed to get rid of the last of the stain. I have read that applying lemon juice works before rinsing, but I haven’t tried that.

      Yes, relaunching site on Monday 20th April and will be publishing to a regular schedule. Thank you for the encouragement Catherine :)

  5. melissa says

    Just started growing it on Texas. I have been asked by the nursery, if the flowery pods and such are edible.?

    As I was told it was part of the nightshade family
    And as we know only certain parts are edible. They look ad if they would be a good thing in stir fry etc.
    I just want an absolute answer on exactly what parts can be eaten.

    Many blessings, and thank u for ur help

    • says

      Hmmn, I wonder if we are speaking about the same plant? The Malabar spinach that I grow is Basella alba, not a Solanaceae or member of the nightshades family at all. I don’t have pods as such, but I would stick to eating just the leaves. The smaller ones are most tasty in salads, the larger ones are slimier in texture but good cooked in a curry. I steer clear of the purple berries and flowers, but I can’t find any evidence that they are poisonous. You would have a very purple stained mouth and teeth if you ate the berries!

      I hope this helps. If you are in the warmer spots of Texas it should grow as rampantly as a weed! Enjoy!

  6. Kathy says

    Malabar spinach has made itself at home in our garden in FNQ for the past several years after bringing home a few seeds from a friend’s place. Despite neglect at times it can be found thriving all over our garden. We’ve even had to pull out great clumps that were strangling other plants and shrubs! We use the smaller leaves in salad, but the bigger leaves are delicious in omelettes. I harvest them, wash them, stack them one on top of the other, then cut out all the sappy stems in one go. I find the mucousy texture a bit off putting, so shred them and give the shredded leaves a rinse before cooking.

    • says

      I love malabar spinach! Thanks for the rinsing tip Kathy. My malabar spinach has been dormant over our chilly months, but is on the move again now it’s heating up. It’s going to be 31 in Perth today! I think we are going to be in for a hot summer…

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