Malabar Spinach is also known as Basella rubra, Chinese spinach, Saan choy, and Pui shak.
It is a is a vining type of plant that thrives in hot temperatures, a boon for those of us that love our greens but find summer too hot for good growth. It can be grown throughout the summer and can even cope when the heat exceeds 90°F.
Using Malabar Spinach is just like using regular spinach. Eaten raw in salads, Malabar spinach leaves are juicy and crisp, the flavours of citrus and pepper accompany the succulent leaves. They are delicious mixed in with other greens in tossed salads. If you enjoy Spinach, Kale or Swiss chard, Malabar Spinach will be a revelation. When cooked it holds up better than regular spinach and doesn’t wilt as rapidly. It looks and tastes much like spinach but with a less bitter flavour due to its lower levels of oxalic acid.
Malabar Spinach tolerates high rainfall and, although it is technically a perennial it is not cold-hardy and is generally grown as an annual in temperate climates. This fast growing vining type plant produces best when trellised. It can even be grown up the same trellis as peas, truly utilising the garden space. Grown as an ornamental edible, the vines can be trained to climb over archways or doorways. Stem tips 15 to 20cm (6 to 8in) of growth can be harvested 55 to 70 days after seeding. Repeated harvests of new growth stems can be made through the summer and autumn growing the season.
Malabar spinach is available in two distinct forms, Basella alba is a green leaf and stem variety while Basella rubra is valued for the brilliant fuchsia-purplish colour of its leaf stems and veins as well as its mild flavour. The plants can also be used as an ornamental, eye-catching addition to the garden.
Sowing: Sow indoors in early spring or directly outdoors from mid Spring. It germinates at temperatures of around 24°C. Malabar Spinach requires a growing temperature of around 21°C and can be grown in a greenhouse or polytunnel. They can also be grown in large 30cm (12in) containers or two to three plants per growbag.
Sowing Indoors: For earlier crops, the seeds may be started indoors six to eight weeks before the last frost is due, and seedlings transplanted outside after the weather has settled and night-time temperatures are consistently above 10°C. Sow seeds 0.5cm (¼in) deep and 2cm (1in) apart in trays or cells. When large enough to handle plant out into the border 23 to 30cm (9 to 12in) apart.
Sowing Direct: Seeds can be sown directly where the plants are to grow in spring, once the temperatures start to warm and all danger of frost has passed and night-time temperatures are consistently above 10°C. Direct sow the seeds two to three weeks after the last frost date. Plant seeds 1cm (½in) deep, 2 to 3cm (1in) apart in rows in rows 75cm (30in) apart. Thin germinated seedlings to about 30cm (12in) apart.
Cultivation: Malabar spinach will grow well in a variety of soil conditions and will survive low-moisture and low-nutrient soils, but for best growth, the vine should be planted in moist well-drained soil with high organic matter and a pH of between 6.5 and 6.8. While the plants like a good drink, it can also handle a bit of neglect if you have regular rainfall. The plants can be grown in part shade, which increases the leaf size, but much prefer a position in full sun.
This is a fast growing vining plant and produces best when given something to grow on, whether a bamboo cane wigwam, trellis or tree, and your yields will be higher, easier to harvest and free from dirt. The plants grow to around 1.5 to 2.5 metres (5 to 8ft) in length, but in very hot climates can grow up to grows up to 4 metres (14ft) in length. Cool temperatures cause growth to be slower, but the plants will still require something for them to climb up. The plants are valiantly resistant to pests and quickly scramble over any ugly screen or wall that needs beautifying.
The plants prefer to have constant moisture, which will prevent early blossoming. Pinch all the small white flowers off the plant to encourage leaf growth. The plants are generally killed by frost, although some report established plants can withstand temperatures down to -14°C (5°F).
Culinary Uses: The young leaves and tender terminal stems can be eaten raw and used in salads. Older leaves can be cooked, they are more like spinach in both look and flavour and hold their shape much better than spinach when cooked. They can be used as a substitute for spinach or chard in recipes. Add to soups and stir-fries in the final stages of preparation to avoid overcooking. Larger leaves and older stems will contain more of the high fibre mucilage, which is the same substance that gives okra its character and is especially useful as a thickener in soups, stews and curries. In India, it is cooked with spicy chillies, chopped onion and mustard oil. It is frequently found in soups, stir-fries and curries. While in China the leaves and roots are sometimes used medicinally for digestive problems.
Berries and Seeds: Late in the season, dark purple berries will appear in abundance. The fruit stains all it touches with an assertive purple mark, so wear gloves when harvesting the berries. The red-purple juice from the berries can be used a natural food colouring, dye or ink. Use it to colour cream for cake decoration, ice-cream or yogurt for a fun addition to a meal. Seeds can be saved from the ripened fruit. Clean and dry the seeds, place in paper envelopes and store in a cool dark place until the following spring.
Harvesting: Stem tips 15 to 20cm (6 to 8in) of growth can be harvested 55 to 70 days after seeding. Repeated harvests of new growth stems can be made through the summer and autumn growing the season.
Origin: A native to tropical Asia, probably originating from India or Indonesia. It is a very popular green vegetable in India, Southeast Asia, China, and Africa. The plants grow in India and throughout the tropics, primarily in the moist lowlands. In China the leaves and roots are sometimes used medicinally for digestive problems. Malabar Spinach is in the Basellaceae family, not the spinach family. It is considered a succulent (a plant that stores water in their leaves and stems). There are two forms, Basella alba is the green leaf and stem variety, while Basella rubra has purplish stems.
Nomenclature: In many parts of the world, Basella alba is usually referred to as the 'spinach' equivalent of a certain country, even though it is not related to the true spinach (Spinacia oleracea). Examples include Malabar spinach, Ceylon spinach, Indian spinach or Chinese spinach. The name of Malabar spinach, likely refers to the northern areas of Kerala state in India. This at least is fitting, since it is thought that Malabar Spinach probably originating from India or Indonesia.
In Latin America, it is known as Espinaca China, Espinaca de Malabar in Spanish or Espinafre Indiano in Portuguese.
In South Asia, it is known as Pui shak in Bengali, Poi ni bhaji in Gujarati, Vallicheera in Malayalam, Mayalu in Marathi, Poi saaga in Odia.
In Southeast Asia, it is known as Pak plang in Thai, Kubay in Ibanag, Libatu in Kapampangan and Alugbati in Tagalog and the Visayan languages of the Philippines.
In East Asia, it is known as Saan choy, Xan choy, Shan tsoi, Luo kai, Shu chieh, and Lo kwai in some of readings of Cantonese, and Tsurumurasaki in Japanese.