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.

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4 Responses to Stunning (Malabar) Spinach

  1. Kyrstie @ A Fresh Legacy April 10, 2013 at 7:00 pm #

    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 :)

    • melissabarnett April 10, 2013 at 8:54 pm #

      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. Margaret RainbowWeb May 1, 2014 at 6:30 am #

    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!

    • melissabarnett May 3, 2014 at 8:54 am #

      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 :)


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