Summer gardening on the coast can be a challenge. Climbing spinach is a new vegetable that repays a few square feet of garden space with delicious greens and a treat for the eye.
Climbing spinach (Basella alba) also known as Malabar spinach, Ceylon spinach, Indian spinach, Saan Choy, Shan Tsoi, Luo Kai, Shu Chieh, Lo Kwai and “the red vine” is easy to grow and versatile in the kitchen.
The beautiful vine is unrelated to true spinach but produces a bumper crop of large leaves that are remarkably similar in taste. Unlike spinach, this plant is heat-tolerant and thrives locally in full sun or light shade.
Native to India and Indonesia, the plant is used in traditional cuisines from Japan to Africa. It has also been introduced to South America and the Caribbean.
Common 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. Thick red stems contrast wonderfully with two- to four-inch-long dark green leaves mottled with red veins.
Malabar spinach grows eight to 10 feet tall and wide and can easily grow a foot a day. Provide a fence or trellis for support. The vine produces tiny pink flowers that develop into pretty little purple berries. The juice from the berries is a natural food coloring.
Malabar spinach prefers a humus-rich, sandy loam. It may be a perennial here but, just in case, dry some of the berries and store them in a screw-top jar to plant in the early spring. Start seeds in pots and transplant established seedlings. This plant is insect and disease resistant.
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. You can also add them to quiche, omelets, turnovers, and potpies. Use as a substitute for any leafy greens. The sprouted seeds are a tasty addition to salads and sandwiches. It has a thickening effect much like okra when added to soups and stews.
Traditionally, the plant is chewed to relieve mouth ulcers. The cooked roots are thought to curb diarrhea, while the cooked leaves and stems are a mild, effective laxative. The sap is used to treat acne and soften the skin. Ongoing research is examining the traditional role of Malabar spinach as a remedy for infertility in men.