Basella alba, commonly known as Malabar Spinach, is a fast-growing, soft-stemmed, twining vine that can grow up to 10 feet (3 m) long as an annual (longer as a perennial), but generally remains smaller in most gardens. The dark green, glossy, oval to heart-shaped leaves are thick and semi-succulent with a mucilaginous texture. The inconspicuous white or pink elongated, globular, fleshy flowers are produced in short spikes in the leaf axils. They are followed by ornamental, 4-parted deep-purple to black berries.
Malabar Spinach can be grown as an annual, leafy vegetable for cultivation of its edible, spinach-like stems and leaves or as an ornamental, foliage vine.
The edible leaves (and shoots) resemble spinach with a mild, slightly peppery flavor with a hint of citrus and are used in the same way. The young leaves can be eaten raw mixed in a green salad and steamed or boiled to be used like cooked spinach. Because of the mucilaginous nature, it can also be used to thicken soups and stews. The leaves can be eaten throughout the season, but once plants start flowering, the leaves become bitter. The tasteless red-purple juice of the fresh berries can stain and is used as a dye or food colorant in Asia. The fruits can be dried whole for planting the following year.
Growing Conditions and General Care
This plant grows best in full sun. Malabar Spinach prefers continuously moist soil and a pH level of 6.5 to 6.8. It can be grown in pots or in a garden with a trellis or up a wall. If the soil becomes dry it will flower and the leaves have a much more bitter flavor.
Malabar Spinach can be grown from seed. To start from seed, plant the seeds indoors 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost. Seeds should germinate in 10 to 20 days. If you want to speed up your seedling's growth, you can either soak them in water overnight before planting or use a knife to open up the hard exterior seed coating.
Seedlings can be transplanted into the garden once the soil has warmed and should be placed a foot (30 cm) apart. Plants will really take off in the heat of the summer, above 80 °F (27 °C). Malabar Spinach does best with some type of vertical support. It can also rambles along the ground. This plant is very attractive so it makes a nice addition to your ornamental landscape.
If you want to spread this plant quickly around your garden or share with friends, Malabar Spinach roots easily. New plants will sprout up wherever the stems touch moist soil. It can be easily propagated from tip cuttings which root readily in water.
Once temperatures fall below 60 °F (15 °C) growth will slow down. If you don't get a frost, the plant can come back each year.
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