By: Amy Grant
When warmer summer temperatures cause spinach to bolt, it’s time to replace it with the heat loving Malabar spinach. Although not technically a spinach, Malabar leaves can be used in place of spinach and make a lovely vining edible with bright fuchsia leaf stems and veins. The question is, how and when to pick Malabar spinach?
Both Basella rubra (red-stemmed Malabar) and its less colorful relative B. alba are herbaceous vines that can grow up to 35 feet (11 m.) in length in one season. Native to southeast Asia and sensitive to cold, both can be grown as an annual in temperate climates.
Malabar spinach grows well in soils ranging in pH from 5.5-8.0 but, ideally, moist, well-draining soil high in organic matter is preferred. It thrives in full sun but will tolerate light shade.
Start seeds indoors six to eight weeks before the last frost date for your area and then transplant outside when nighttime temps are at least a consistent 50 degrees F. (10 C.).
When can you begin harvesting Malabar spinach? Begin checking on the vine everyday beginning in the early summer. When the main stalk is strong and growing well, you can begin picking the leaves.
There’s no trick to Malabar spinach harvesting. Just snip leaves and tender new stems 6 to 8 inches (15-20 cm.) long with scissors or a knife. Malabar takes to aggressive pruning and it will not harm the plant in any way. In fact, picking large amounts of the plant will only signal it to become even bushier. If you don’t want or don’t have the room for a lengthy vine, just harvest aggressively.
Malabar spinach harvesting has a lengthy season since snipping it back will only encourage more growth. You can continue to pick Malabar spinach as long as the plant is actively producing new shoots, all summer and into the fall, or until it begins to flower.
Flowers make way for a profusion of dark purple berries. They can be used as a food coloring for whip cream or yogurt.
The leaves and shoots from Malabar spinach picking can be eaten fresh or cooked as spinach. The flavor is not as bitter as that of spinach, however, due to its lower levels of oxalic acid. Most people who like spinach, kale, and Swiss chard will like Malabar, although others may not find it as appealing.
Younger leaves and stems are the most palatable. The older foliage has more high fiber mucilage, the same thing that gives okra its slimy character.
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Spinach lovers, now is the time to transition from growing our favorite cool weather common spinach to the more heat tolerant tropical spinaches that will provide leafy greens through the summer and into the fall season. Several easy-to-grow, spinach-like greens are available to stimulate our palates, nourish our bodies, and bring aesthetic beauty to our gardens. Consider growing Malabar spinach, New Zealand spinach, Longevity spinach and Okinawa spinach, to name a few.
Malabar spinach, also known as climbing spinach, has dark green to reddish, oval leaves with white or pink flowers on green or purple vines. These features make it attractive enough to be considered an ornamental. However, more notable features are its dietary and health benefits. Malabar spinach is high in vitamins A and C, minerals, amino acids and antioxidants. It is commonly found in Asian markets and used in stir-fries, soups, stews or enjoyed raw in salads for its mild lemon-pepper flavor.
New Zealand spinach, with a milder but similar flavor to common spinach, grows from 1 to 2 feet tall. Once it spreads to about a foot wide, harvest the top 2 to 3 inches of the tender, triangular young leaves. Harvesting in this way allows the plant to continue its growth long into the summer. For this reason, it’s also known as Everlasting or Perpetual spinach. It, too, is rich in vitamins A and C as well as calcium and phosphorus. In its native New Zealand, this spinach is found in salads, soups, stews, herb stuffing and lasagna.
Two local favorites, Longevity spinach and Okinawa spinach are poetically known as the “leaves of the gods.” Longevity spinach is the green leaf variety of the Okinawa spinach which has green and purple leaves. They grow from 1 to 2 feet tall and spread to make a lush ground cover. Longevity spinach has a stronger flavor and texture than Okinawa spinach, but both can be used in smoothies, salads or only lightly steamed. Overcooking can change the color and result in a gelatinous texture.
Longevity and Okinawa spinach are abundant in vitamin A and nutrients, including proteins, iron, potassium and calcium. In fact, the name “Longevity” spinach is said to have come from its many health benefits.
As if the nutritional and health benefits weren’t enough, planting these summer greens couldn’t be easier. They are prolific growers in a container or in the ground in any well-draining soil preferably in a mix of rich, organic soil. They are sun-loving plants, but will also thrive with afternoon shade. Average watering is required during dry spells.
Harvesting often and pinching off the flowers will keep the greens producing throughout the growing season. Most can be propagated through cuttings, although Malabar spinach will go to seed as cooler weather approaches and days get shorter. Collect these seeds for use in the spring or allow the seeds to reseed naturally.
Foodscaping with these tropical greens adds color to your garden and nutrition to your table. It is a healthy, low maintenance choice for gardening in the heat of the summer.
Happy gardening & bon appétit!
Deborah Haggett is a Lee County Master Gardener Volunteer and a member of the Garden Club of Cape Coral. Visit us at www.gardenclubofcapecoral.com Heat Tolerant Vegetables – Gardening Solutions – University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. (2019, June 12). Https://Gardeningsolutions.Ifas.Ufl.Edu. https://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/plants/edibles/vegetables/heat-tolerant-vegetables.html Liu, G., & Qiu, Y. (2020, September). Florida Cultivation Guide for Malabar Spinach. Edis.Ifas.Ufl.Edu. https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/hs1371 New Zealand Spinach. (2021). Https://Specialtyproduce.Com. https://specialty produce.com/produce/New_Zealand_Spinach_6784.php Vu, A. (2018, March 20). Summer Greens. UF/IFAS Extension Orange County. https://blogs.ifas.ufl. edu/orangeco/2018/03/20/summer-greens/
Heat Tolerant Vegetables – Gardening Solutions – University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. (2019, June 12). Https://Gardeningsolutions.Ifas.Ufl.Edu. https://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/plants/edibles/vegetables/heat-tolerant-vegetables.html
Liu, G., & Qiu, Y. (2020, September). Florida Cultivation Guide for Malabar Spinach. Edis.Ifas.Ufl.Edu. https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/hs1371
New Zealand Spinach. (2021). Https://Specialtyproduce.Com. https://specialty produce.com/produce/New_Zealand_Spinach_6784.php
Vu, A. (2018, March 20). Summer Greens. UF/IFAS Extension Orange County. https://blogs.ifas.ufl. edu/orangeco/2018/03/20/summer-greens/
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Dana Ross says
Great in omelets – saute in butter along with herbs of choice – flavor blends well with garlic chives. Pour in eggs. Flip. Add sour cream or cheese. Fold over.
Darlene Glaser says
Do I just pick the leaves off the vine?
Yep, it’s that easy Darlene. You can pick the younger leaves or wait until they get bigger. The texture doesn’t seem to be affected over time. The sap can be slimy though, so you might wan to bring a towel along. I’ve found that the sliminess diminishes by the time I get to the kitchen.
Were can I buy Malabar spinach seeds?
Helga G says
I have been growing Malabar for a few years now. I share with my neighbor who also loves it. You can buy the seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.
Thanks for getting to this before I could Helga! Yes, Grace, you can get them from Baker Creek. I’ve found their seeds to be very reliable.
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Your plants have been growing for about 2 months and you may have been harvesting spinach leaves. But as time goes on, your spinach will send up a long thin stock that comes from the center of the plant.
The leaves you have been harvesting may not taste sweet anymore, but begin to taste bitter.
This is the flower stalk of the spinach plant. This is a flower head which is going to turn into a seed head. Once your spinach plants bolt, the whole structure changes and it’s really time to pull them out of the garden.
You can let it continue to grow if you want to save seeds though.
It is important to know when your spinach plants bolts because this is really the end point of when you can harvest spinach leaves. The process of forming this stalk redirects the energy of the plant leaf growth.
This redirection of spinach plant energy really makes the spinach leaves tougher and more bitter tasting. You can still harvest them if you are just seeing the stalk form but do it quickly.
Typically, the spinach plant bolts when the temperatures warm up and the days get longer. This signals the spinach plant that it is time to reproduce. Some varieties of Spinach may be slow to bolt, so pick these types if this a concern for your area.
Since spinach is grown when the weather is cool and damp, several fungal diseases, such as downy mildew (blue mold) and fusarium wilt, can become problems. Space your spinach plants so they get good air circulation and try to keep water off the leaves in the evening.
Aphids pose a risk to spinach because they can spread viruses. Monitor your crop for aphids regularly and hose them off immediately if you find them.
Several four-legged pests, rabbits chief among them, may also raid your spinach patch. The best defense against them is fencing.