Gardening How-to Articles

Red-Stemmed Malabar Spinach

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.

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.

    Discussion

  • Lori July 28, 2022

    Are the fruits edible?

  • Dee August 17, 2020

    We live in Long Island and this year I planted this spinach from seed in March. We had an unusual early and warm spring, but I thought spinach liked it with a little chill. In 2 weeks the sprouts began and I was excited (never have been able to grow spinach in the past). Then we had a cold spell and they took a hit, I thought they were dead. I cut the tender damaged sprouts down and waited. 5 weeks later we had a very warm spell and this spinach looks like a monster vine. Pretty cool!!! Lots of good eating. Isn’t nature wonderful???

  • [email protected] September 5, 2019

    We have grown the red-stemmed Malabar Spinach this year inspired by an Indian couple from our community garden. I planted all the seeds in the package because another time I tried to grow it hardly any came up. I watered these seeds nearly every day. Now in early September the plant is magnificent. We have eaten in salad, soup, stir fry.  I have been cutting off the flowers, but will stop now as this plant cannot stand cold weather. You can eat the stems in stir fry and soup by slicing the stems in half and chopping them up into 1-2 inch segments.  This is a plant that will feed you for sure.

  • Susie from MO September 15, 2018

    How do I get this vine to grow again next year from the same plant?

  • Okpani izuchukwu March 8, 2018

    Interesting article Malabar spinach grows very well in Nigeria. I love the colour. I enjoy the way it grow and coils round an object. Can it be eaten raw?

  • Frances July 27, 2017

    Hi, I planted red-stemmed Malabar spinach for the first time this year. I’m from Puerto Rico, tropical weather. The plant grew very fast and beautiful. I waited 4 month to start harvesting the leaves, and even though I’m consuming them, the leaves taste like grass. Is this the normal taste? Thank you

  • Slawomir July 26, 2017

    I would be very happy if you could give me information how to buy the dried fruits of Malabar spinach—this way I would use be able to derive the pigments from it.

  • Isolde Kellock June 26, 2017

    I live in Houston, Texas, and planted some last year. Even though we had a couple of days of freezing weather this winter, it has now come back and taken over my vegetable garden. Also, new plants are popping up all over the yard. I don’t know how to control this plant. There was no sign of it when I first started my veggie patch this spring.

  • Jenna Arredondo January 5, 2017

    I make homemade soap, both melt-&-pour and with lye. I had some of this in my garden and thought the color would be beautiful in my soap. It was for about a week. Then, mysteriously the color just disappeared! One day if was this beautiful reddish purple and the next it was clear. Strangest thing.

  • SAM October 26, 2016

    I am so excited to be growing Malabar spinach. I started with vine cuttings I made from a bag purchased from a local organic food store. Then I purchased the seeds and scored and soaked them and most of them came up! The leaves from the seed start plants are super big and healthy looking in comparison to the cuttings. I live in the Virgin Islands in the hills and am growing them in self-watering patio picker planter boxes with a good potting mix and lots of worm castings, azimite, lime, and organic 5-5-5 fertilizer.
    QUESTION: Are the fruits completely safe to eat?

  • Zenrose April 22, 2016

    I am delighted to find this. I received my red malabar seeds and have scarified them and have them soaking. I have a container garden and must use a pot. Can you tell me what size would work well? I am in the Southwest where it is hot with a south facing patio with awning. I would like to know if the afternoon sun would be acceptable. I am looking for container grown edible plants that can tolerate this zone on the west side with 100 to 115 typical summer temperatures. Thank you.

  • Meg October 23, 2015

    This is my favorite plant for edible landscaping and stunning food gardens. So glad to find so many other folks talking about it. Some folks asked about preserving the leaves for winter use in cold climates. About this time each year, I start picking lots of the leaves (but leave the vines to keep growing til frost). I wash them in cold water, dry them on a towel covered tray, stack them into neat little piles, and pack them into freezer bags. Suck out the air, seal and freeze They keep perfectly, much better than regular spinach. Never had a problem with freezer burn or losing shape or color. If they’re dry when you pack them, they won’t stick to each other either, so it’s easy to take out just what you need for each recipe over the winter. I use these until spring comes and regular spinach or lambs quarters is back up. Here in Chicago my vines will keep growing up through end of October, early November. The cold weather seems to toughen the leaves a little, which makes them hold up even better in cooking and freezing.

  • Patti October 17, 2015

    I was wondering if I can snip the vine and it will produce a more rounded leafy plant?

  • BBG Staff October 13, 2015

    Eleanor: It’s hard to define “American” from a culinary standpoint, but if you’re looking for familiar dishes in which to use Malabar spinach, the web is a good starting point. A quick browse revealed recipes calling for Malabar spinach in lasagna, quiche, and gumbo, salmon cakes, and fritters, to name just a few.

  • Eleanor October 7, 2015

    Are there any American-style recipes for Malabar spinach?

  • Clare Gould September 22, 2015

    I live in northwest England, UK. I bought 3 small plants of malabar spinach from our local specialist vegetable nursery at the start of our summer (early June) and have had them growing in large pots in the greenhouse alongside tomatoes and cucumbers. Have decided to try overwintering them as house plants near a sunny window, as the greenhouse is unheated and gets quite chilly on winter nights. We are still looking for different ways to use it in the kitchen, but found it useful as a spinach substitute when the outdoor spinach crop went to seed, particularly as it was so trouble free, and did not seem to mind being watered with the tomato fertilizer. The information from other people on the website is really helpful.

  • Ginnie September 7, 2015

    We live in east Texas, and I planted one plant a couple of years ago. It has come up in all kinds of locations, including other flower beds. This year it was running loose in my hostas, so it tolerated shade very well. Will be harvesting berries off this year’s vine as I suspect that is how it has been so mobile in our backyard.  Blended it in with romaine in a salad tonight, and it was great!

  • Gaylene Smith September 1, 2015

    Several years ago I purchased some Malabar spinach seeds. This season I planted the seeds in a portable greenhouse. The small plants pierced through the soil in about 21 days. I did not soak them or score the seed, and lucky me, they grew!  Not knowing anything more than that the plant had colorful red stems and was edible, to my surprise this is a gem of ornamental beauty. Simply love this plant. It’s a spectacular addition to my other plantings. Searching for more information on this plant, I found your wonderful site!  Thank you for the time you spend making us gardeners happy with your wisdom.

  • Clarence July 14, 2015

    Have this plant on a tomato trellis in an aquaponic system, and it loves it.

  • Flo June 29, 2015

    I received a plant from a friend. It is doing great, but I’ve never harvested one of these. Do you pick the larger leaves at the base of the plant? Do I pinch the plant back to increase larger leaves on vine as well as cause side shoots?

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