Red-Stemmed Malabar Spinach—A Deliciously Stunning Vine

One of my favorite hot-weather vegetables is red-stemmed Malabar spinach, Basella alba 'Rubra'. Easy to grow, versatile in the kitchen, and delicious to eat, this vigorous vine is unrelated to true spinach (Spinacia oleracea) but produces abundant large meaty leaves that are remarkably spinachlike in taste and form. The plant is also much better suited for summer growing than its better-known namesake.

Red-stemmed Malabar spinach

Red-stemmed Malabar spinach (Photo: Wit's End Growers, www.pickoftheplanet.com)

Oh, and I forgot to mention this: It's a thing of beauty. A number of years ago, I visited Wave Hill gardens, in the Bronx, New York, and saw red-stemmed Malabar spinach twining on a trellis and forming the backdrop for a display of dark-leafed cultivars of common economic crops—purple-stemmed sugarcane, black-leafed cotton, aubergine-colored beets, kale, and Swiss chard. The combination knocked my socks off!

Basella alba goes by many other common names besides Malabar spinach, including Ceylon spinach, Indian spinach, vine spinach, and Malabar nightshade. Native to India and Indonesia (Malabar is a coastal region in southwestern India), the plant is used in traditional cuisines as far westward from its point of origin as Japan and eastward as Africa. It has also been introduced to South America and the Caribbean.

Straight species Malabar spinach has yellowish stems and green leaves and is a pleasing enough plant, but it's the red-stemmed cultivar 'Rubra' that really catches the eye (whether it's growing in a pot or lounging in a salad bowl). The thick red stems contrast wonderfully with the round, highly textured, two- to four-inch-long dark green leaves. Red venation in the leaves adds another level of color contrast.

Malabar spinach grows eight to ten feet tall and wide and produces inconspicuous white-tinged pink flowers in its leaf axils. Upon fertilization, the flowers develop into small, highly ornamental, single-seeded purple berries. The juice from the berries is so intensely purple that it puts beet juice to shame. It's used as a natural food colorant for agar (vegetable "gelatine") dishes, sweets, and pastries.

Malabar spinach excels in warm, tropical areas, where it can easily grow a foot per day. It's intolerant of any chills; thus, the only regions in the U.S. where it would be perennial are the Deep South or southern Florida. Gardeners in colder climates can grow it as an annual.

Basella alba prefers a humus-rich, sandy loam in full sun. Seeds can be sown in situ after all danger of frost has passed, or they can be started indoors eight weeks before the last frost date, hardened off outside, and transplanted one foot apart. Use any style of plant support you prefer: poles, teepees, chain-link fencing—I use a tall, recycled Eiffel Tower-esque metal étagère missing its glass shelves. Malabar spinach is amazingly insect and disease resistant, and that is saying a lot; down here in Puerto Rico, legions of caterpillars and grasshoppers can decimate an entire planting overnight, yet the spinach remains untouched!

Propagation from seed is a snap, and happily, the red-stemmed cultivar of Malabar spinach comes true from seed. Saving seed is easy too: Simply dry the entire fruit and use it for planting the following year. Stem and tip cuttings may be employed as well. (One source for the plant is Shady Acres Herb Farm, 7815 Highway 212, Chaska, MN 55318; 952-466-3391; www.shadyacres.com.)

The succulent leaves and stem tips are rich in vitamins A and C and are a good source of iron and calcium. They may be eaten raw in salads, boiled, steamed, stir-fried, or added to soups, stews, tofu dishes, and curries. Or you can use them as a filling for quiche, omelets, savory turnovers, and potpies. Since red-stemmed Malabar spinach can lose a lot of its red color when cooked, perhaps it is best utilized (visually speaking) in raw dishes.

Indonesian-Style Malabar Spinach

  • 4 cups Malabar spinach leaves
  • 3 tablespoons peanut oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • ½-inch piece galangal root or fresh ginger root, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 red chile pepper, seeded and slivered lengthwise
  • 1¾ cups cream of coconut (not coconut milk)
  • ¼ cup fresh lime juice
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 scallion sliced into thin rings, including green tops
  • 2–4 fresh kaffir lime leaves, or 2 dried leaves pulverized in a spice mill

Gently sauté the galangal, garlic, and chile in the oil for a few minutes, then stir in the greens and cook until they are wilted through. Drain off excess liquid. Combine the remaining ingredients in a medium-size, heavy-bottomed saucepan and heat to a bare simmer, stirring constantly. Do not let it boil. Add the cooked greens and mix. Serve warm.


Scott D. Appell is a regular contributor to BBG publications and the author of four books, Pansies, Lilies, Tulips, and Orchids. He lives and gardens on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico.


Comments

May 8, 2010
DDD Smith

I just wanted to comment on this paragraph…“Malabar spinach excels in warm, tropical areas, where it can easily grow a foot per day. It’s intolerant of any chills; thus, the only regions in the U.S. where it would be perennial are the Deep South or southern Florida. Gardeners in colder climates can grow it as an annual.”

I live in North Texas. Believe it or not we get 4-5 cold snaps a winter where it can get to 15%F and stay below freezing for up to two consecutive days. Never had a problem with it not coming back, year after year.  In Fact, it can be invasive to a vegetable garden.  Do research on the health benefits. You will be amazed to say the least.  It heals!!!


June 22, 2011
RJ Parks

I would like to know if there are any health risks with eating this plant.


July 15, 2011
Gardener's Resource Center

Malabar spinach (Basela alba) is not listed as toxic in Toxic Plants of North America (Burrows and Tyrl) or Poisonous Plants (Frohne and Pfander). However, malabar spinach, like many other leafy green vegetables, is a source of oxalates, which people with kidney stones and other kidney disorders should avoid or restrict in intake. A good online source for plant and other toxic substances is the National Library of Medicine’s Toxicology Data Network, Toxnet: http://toxnet.nlm.nih.gov/


July 19, 2011
pam

Do you eat the berries or just the leaves?


July 20, 2011
jblackburn

The foliage is considered to be the palatable part of Malabar spinach, although the fruit is not toxic and is used for coloring food.


November 15, 2011
rick

if you take the leaves off do others grow back?


December 6, 2011
jblackburn

As long as you don’t completely strip the leaves from the stems, they will keep producing foliage. The leaves can be picked individually (the younger ones toward the top of the vine are the most tender), or you can snip off the tips of the shoots and cook them stems and all.


April 7, 2012
Carol Umstad

A friend gave me a little plant about 10 cm. Now it is several meters long shooting off in all directions. A most attractive vine, climbing up my tomatoes ever so beautifully, I let it go because it is so aesthetic. A real garden conversation piece. We use it in stir fries, but will experiment further. We tried to eat it because it was green. I do not know why it is not more widely grown here. I live in the sub-tropical gold coast of Australia. I am going to promote it as we cannot grow any other greens during our summer peak.


June 2, 2012
Carol

Hi there, I’m growing malabar spinach in pots in my back garden, and it is winding its way around my stair banister and looks gorgeous. I use it in stir fries, but I am a bit concerned about the jelly that comes out of it when chopped up—is it safe to eat? I haven’t felt ill from it as yet!
Thank you, Carol.


June 6, 2012
BBG Staff

Hi, Carol:
The sap of malabar spinach is mucilaginous (slimy) by nature—and harmless. Enjoy!


June 15, 2012
Carol

Thank you for answering my question, and yes, I really love this plant! Kind regards, Carol.


June 16, 2012
Sue

I recently purchased this at a flea market in northern MN—several healthy stems growing inside a hanging pot.  Also purchased a single plant in a 4” pot. Any advice on what I need to do to keep these plants healthy in a northern climate? Temperatures have been dipping to the mid ‘50s at night, and we seem to be getting more rain than sunshine these days.


June 19, 2012
BBG Staff

Since Malabar spinach needs hot weather to thrive, the best location in your climate would be on a sunny patio against a stone wall that catches the afternoon sun. Stone (and concrete) surfaces collect solar heat and release it slowly after dark, protecting the plants from evening cool.


July 11, 2012
linda west

Do the berries turn into seeds if they are dried? I collected some and put them in a bright window. They don’t look like seeds.


July 26, 2012
Debra Maslowski

I recently bought property in Old Fort, NC. It use to be a nursery, so I’m finding all kinds of plants all over the place. While I was checking my hops I found a malabar spinach vine growing on the same trellis. I’ve never grown it, but thought I knew what it was since I had just ordered seeds for the plant. We’ve had two meals so far out of that one vine and can’t wait for more!


July 28, 2012
Ruth Hollifield

Do you have any more recipes using the red stem spinach?  Can it be used successfully in a recipe like regular spinach?


August 4, 2012
Diana Sandlin

I was so blessed to find this here in San Antonio Texas! I love spinach in my salads and have been looking for one that can handle hot weather, and here it is. I have it growing in partial shade as I noticed that it does wilt when it is too dry. 


August 21, 2012
Rita

Is there a green stemmed variety as well? Someone just let me pick some from her garden, and what she called Malabar spinach had a green, thicker in appearance than your pic, stem. 

Thanks!


August 23, 2012
BBG Staff

Hi, Rita:
Yes, the green-stemmed form is the most likely the straight species, Basella alba.


August 30, 2012
Jean

I have the green-stemmed variety. Do I cook the stems along with the leaves or just the leaves?


September 10, 2012
Heather

I live in Daytona Beach, FL in the great sun and heat! I just received a plant from a friend. It’s in a small pot now, but I’d like to put in near my chain link fence so it can climb. Would it be better for me to put it into the ground or a big pot? Also, what kind of soil or fertilizer does it need, and any helpful tips for replanting? I am new to all of this but love the leaves it produces! Thank you!!


October 7, 2012
nancy

I grow malabar spinach as an annual vine on the north side of my home in Minnesota. It grows fast and requires no care at all other than watering. I have tried several other plants in that spot and nothing else has worked. It was beautiful all summer.


April 15, 2013
Patti

This is the first year I am growing malabar spinach in my garden (12 to 14 planned). Should I get rid of some of the plants?


April 16, 2013
BBG Staff

Patti: As long as you have room, why not grow them all? Just make sure they are thinned or transplanted to one foot apart and trellised.


April 22, 2013
Sally

Is there a risk of this becoming an invasive plant here in southern New Mexico? For example, morning glory is a pest to cotton farmers here in the Rio Grande Valley.


April 30, 2013
Ann McGrath

Interesting web site, thank you! Here in Brisbane, Queensland, climbing spinach (red-stemmed or green-stemmed) grows very well and is ideal for growing on a verandah; pretty and practical.


May 19, 2013
Cherrida Hardaker

I have been using this climbing spinach this summer and it is great. It grows without any problem or care, just a little bit of water now and then. I use it in green smoothies and also in stir-fry. When there is a lot growing I put it in small plastic bags and freeze it, ready to use for when the season finishes.


July 18, 2013
Sandra

I just received a malabar spinach vine plant and have it in my sunny garden, where it’s growing very nice. What do I do for our winters in Manitoba, Canada?


July 22, 2013
BBG Staff

Sandra, unless you have a hothouse where you can overwinter your plant, your best bet is to save the seeds from the fruit and start them indoors early next spring. Transplant the seedlings outside once all danger of frost is past.


July 22, 2013
Ann

I live in SC, and we have malibar spinach in abundance; however, I don’t really know how to prepare it. I’ve tried quiche, and it was tasty, but I can’t locate the seasonings for other recipes. Any suggestions?


July 25, 2013
Diana

I’ve been growing this vine for the first time this summer. It’s great to know the berries act as a natural dye; I will try to freeze/save some of the juice for egg dyeing next spring. If I have a lot of these berries and flowers, should I be clipping them off to stimulate more leaf growth or does it not make a difference? Thanks!


July 28, 2013
Parks

I live in Orlando area and would like to find a few of these plants. Can anyone help steer me where to get them?


July 29, 2013
Ingrid regula

I live in central Florida and purchased this plant at a “rare plant fair” four years ago. I kept it at the front porch where it climbs around the railing. It shows up every year again, then I pot them. It never has any problems, and looks beautiful. I water it along with my flowers and pick the leaves to add to our daily salad. I would not cook it unless I had more. I also stick it into a sandwich in place of lettuce. Finally I found a place for information on this interesting plant!


July 31, 2013
ginette lh

I wondered the same thing about the berries/seeds. Should they be removed to give more energy to the foliage? My spinach this year is not growing longer’ instead the leaves just seem to be getting bigger…any ideas?


August 14, 2013
Donna

I have one Malibar spinach vine and it is doing well. I’ve been eating the flowers and am going to put some into salads. Is there anything I need to do to encourage seeds for next year? Will the seeds self-sow? I live in Zone 6, Kentucky. Thanks!


August 28, 2013
Jen

I live in southwest Florida and grew Malabar spinach from seed in a pot, which I transplanted into a container garden in the yard. It has consumed the trellis we planted it next to. It has tolerated the heat, full sun, and torrential summer rains great. We have enjoyed it raw (the small leaves in salads) and very quickly sautéed, but it does not juice well. The taste is very pleasant; however, the slime from the leaves made the juice nearly impossible to swallow—very thick and viscous.


September 9, 2013
Ann

First year with this plant and I love it!  After a slow start this cool wet spring, it took off and has been producing like the Eveready Bunny. It goes on and on and on, overgrowing my teepee trellis and winding its red tentacles through the other vegetables. I eat the crunchy flowers as well as the leaves in salads but find the stems too tough. The mucilage (slime) is soluable fiber—excellent for the digestive tract, blood sugar levels, and many other conditions that respond to increased fiber. I use it in any recipe that calls for spinach, but where it is the main ingredient (i.e., creamed spinach), I try to minimize the cooking lest the dish become too slimy. The plant is visually stunning and I will absolutely grow this again next year!


September 11, 2013
Laurie

Any other suggested recipes that don’t include coconut? Thanks so much.


November 6, 2013
Brandi

I was given a small plant as a housewarming gift. Can it be kept indoors or does it only do well outside? I want to have the vine climb my kitchen window.  I am in Southern California. Thanks!


November 7, 2013
gina taras

How do you save the seeds? I have lots of the dark berries, but do I let them dry out on the plant, or do I cut them off and dry them inside? I have them growing on the roof in NYC, where it is about to get very cold. I really appreciate any info regarding this, as I adore this plant, and want to grow next year. Thanks.


November 7, 2013
BBG Staff

This article recommends drying the entire fruit, but Seed Savers Exchange offers this advice, which might get better results: “Place the fruits in a metal strainer that is partially submerged in a bowl of soapy water. When rubbed against the sides of the strainer the fruits disintegrate, exposing the seeds. Rinse the seeds in clear water and dry the bottom of the strainer on a towel to remove as much water as possible. Place the seeds on a glass plate to dry.” Cornell’s gardening webpage on Malabar spinach also recommends that the dried seeds be scarified (the process of scraping the seed coat with a file or sandpaper) just before planting to facilitate germination.


December 1, 2013
Michael Richard Stamets

I received some green Malabar spinach from my farm co-op in a grocery delivery. After I’d used the leaves I put the thick stem ends in a bit of root hormone and stuck them in a jar of water. They did well, growing long roots. I transferred them to pots several weeks ago and am getting new growth. I will plant them outside in the spring. I live in central Texas and could probably put them outside now (December 1) but will wait to give them a better start outside when it’s warmer.


January 15, 2014
chris dorr

A friend gave me a small sprig of this plant and we enjoyed its leaves in salads all summer long. Now that it is winter (Arizona), it is producing plump purple berries, and I am wondering whether they can be used in the same way as pomegranate seeds? Any other ideas besides food coloring?  Aso, tips for other such fun and exotic plants would be welcome. Thank you!


January 30, 2014
sammy

I planted a Malabar stem in a small sack of soil in my backyard. For months now, I have been enjoying the leaves in soups. I observed that when I cook the leaves whole, they don’t get slimy (when chopped, they do get slimy). They become more tasty too when cooked whole.


April 28, 2014
Georgie Bouthillier

I planted this close to my cucumber trellis and added a lot of cow manure and other natural amendments in 2013. Both grew up same trellis and did very well. I also grew it just in reach of my bean trellis but was careful not to get manure too close to the beans and planted a little less malabar so it would not shade and crowd the beans. Both did very well.


June 8, 2014
Jennie

I just bought a red Malabar spinach plant from a grower in the UK (I Iive down in Devon). We were both sure the slugs and snails wouldn’t like it, but they do! I’m going to try growing it in a large pot on my patio against a warm southwest-facing wall with lots of grit on top and a slug-repelling band around the pot. Does it cling to a rough wall or do I need to provide it with support?


June 10, 2014
BBG Staff

Malabar spinach is a twining vine, so you will need a trellis or other type of support.


July 8, 2014
Olle

Hi, I also wonder if the flowers and fruits should be removed to help foliage, or is it of no difference?


July 16, 2014
Glenis

I live in subtropical west Australia and have this vine. It is growing well but has brown rings all over the leaves. Does anyone know what it is? It has heaps of berries too. Thx.


July 20, 2014
Kathy

I grew this gorgeous, tasty vine for the first time last year and fell in love! It never wilted in the heat and the bugs hardly touched it. This year, little plants sprouted spontaneously from dropped seed once the weather warmed up. Seeds I dried from whole berries in my food dehydrator last fall germinated without any effort to scrape away the outer coating. I simply soaked them for 24 hours prior to planting. Outdoor temperatures at the time of planting were by far the most important factor. I started too early with the first batch, which failed. The second planting a couple of weeks later took off like crazy (almost 100% germination). I’m located in Kansas City (border of Zones 5/6). Has anyone attempted to preserve Malibar leaves for out-of-season use? If so, please share!


July 28, 2014
Antoniette

Just received this pretty plant. Can I keep it indoors? Or can I keep the pot outside and bring it indoors for the winter?



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