Despite the name, Malabar spinach has little in common with Popeye’s favorite green. Unlike true spinach, Malabar spinach is a summer salad; this jungle vine gains strength as the temperature rises. It’s strong to the finish.
Malabar spinach (Basella alba) starts a little slowly but can easily reach 10 feet. If given a trellis and judicious pruning, it can become a decorative hedge. Best of all: You can cook your trimmings.
“We eat from it all the time,” said Stan Zurn, who lives in the historic Angelino Heights neighborhood of L.A. The vines on the sidewalk median in front of his house are exploding over a trellis, wrapping enthusiastically around a telephone pole.
Zurn got the plants from Sunset Nursery, a supplier of the Asian vegetable for decades. Nursery owner Dennis Kuga remembered his father, Bill, taking truckloads of Malabar spinach to give away at community centers in Little Tokyo, trying to build awareness of the vine.
Native to India and Indonesia, the plant is also known as Indian, creeping, Asian, Vietnamese, Surinam, Ceylonese and Chinese spinach. There are two varieties, red and pale green stemmed, and they taste and grow the same. (Visually, the red-stemmed variety is dramatic.)
The nearly palm-sized leaves are fleshy, and when eaten raw they have a slight crunchiness and taste of lemon and pepper. When cooked, the leaves and stems taste more like spinach, although the texture is denser.
Malabar spinach leaves can be substituted for true spinach in soups, curries, omelets and soufflés. But be careful not to overcook them. Left over heat too long, the flesh devolves into an unappealing slime.
Some gardeners grow Malabar spinach intensively seeded in shallow containers to harvest the tenderest sprouting leaves for salads and stir-fry, never letting it express its vigor as a vine.
It flourishes as a perennial in Southern California, sending out little white or purple flowers and dark purple berries at the end of summer. (These berries will stain, so pick your site carefully.) Once the plant flowers, the taste of the leaves degrades.
Malabar spinach grows easily from seeds (available from evergreenseeds.com in Anaheim) or from cuttings. As soon as the main stem is established, you can start eating.
This is a vigorous plant whose creeping vines can take root and whose seeds can be carried by birds feeding on the berries. Some gardeners consider it invasive (as do some of their neighbors). It is relatively easy to uproot, fortunately. Some may prefer to plant it in a balcony container or perhaps as a living screen.
The Global Garden, a look at our multicultural city through the lens of its landscapes, appears here on Tuesdays. For an easy way to follow future installments, join our Facebook page for Gardening in the West. Email: email@example.com.