Tropical vine adds taste to plate and landscape

This past week, while I was working in the garden, I noticed a whole bunch of little sprouts in a clump beside one of my raised beds.

The red stems of the little plants made me first think that I had dropped a handful of beet or Swiss chard seeds last fall on accident. However, on closer inspection it turned out to be a plant I grew for the first time last year that reseeded itself.

These tiny seedlings are from a plant called Malabar spinach (Basella alba). The name is sort of a misnomer, because it is not even remotely related to spinach, and it’s not even in the same family. The name comes from the fact that the dark green leaves make a tasty spinach substitute.

The plant is native to tropical regions of the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia and New Guinea, and gets its name from the Malabar region of India. It ended up being one of my favorite things in the garden last year, but not for its flavor or prolific production. This is a beautiful plant.

This plant makes a great spinach substitute because spinach, and many other leafy greens, do not grow well in the heat of the summer. When spinach, lettuce and many of the other salad greens have bolted and turned bitter, tropical Malabar spinach thrives in the garden.

For this reason, our commercial horticulture specialist at the WVU Extension Service, Lewis Jett, is testing it the plant for local farmers and is encouraging folks around the state to try it.

Malabar spinach trained easily on arches in my vegetable garden.

Malabar spinach is a fast-growing vine that can reach over 30 feet long if left unpruned. The deep green succulent leaves are offset by deep red succulent vines that have a texture that makes them easy to train along an arbor or fence.

Toward the end of the season, the plant becomes covered with pinkish-white flower clusters that give way to purple-black berries.

The plant is beautiful in all stages. I planted it on arch trellises in my vegetable garden, and it provided beauty through the summer until frost.

The leaves do make a tasty spinach substitute for fresh salad. They can also be cooked. However, they are mucilaginous — meaning that they produce a thick gluey substance when cooked, just like okra. Use both the leaves and the stems in soups or stews as a thickener, but don’t expect to toss them in a skillet and have lightly cooked spinach.

They are used to make curries and sauces, and, for anyone familiar with Indian or Pakistani cuisine, they can be used to make saag (a dish made with cooked leafy greens). The plant is high in vitamins A and C, iron, and calcium and is also high in fiber (which is what forms the mucilage when cooked).

I have to admit that we didn’t eat a lot of the Malabar spinach last year, but I’m sure that will change. However, because the plant turned out to be such a striking beauty, my plan this year is to liberate it from the vegetable garden and use it on some fences in the actual landscape.

Beyond the kitchen, the purple-black berries can be used to make a vibrant purple-violet dye for anyone interested in making dyes for craft and art projects (or for a wild purple hair color).

The plant is easily started from seed. It may be difficult to find locally, so a quick catalog order may be in store to try it.

Simply sow the seed after the danger of frost has passed, and it will do the rest — I didn’t really have to do anything but train it on the arbor from time to time.

The plant does die back at the end of the year, but it will reseed itself. Plant it on a structure where it will be able to grow uninhibited. I’m going to let it cover a chain link fence in my front yard this year, but you can also grow it on a trellis, arbor or any other structure it can wind itself around.

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