In the Garden:
Try Malabar spinach for fresh greens all summer.
What with all the tomatoes, sweet corn, green beans, peppers, okra, cucumbers, and summer squash that summer brings us, it's easy not to care whether we have any greens to eat. Yet fresh green salads are always a great addition to meals, even in summer, and cooked or wilted spinach is good for us year-round. But how many of us have struggled to choose heat-tolerant spinach varieties or provide shady row covers and extra moisture, only to watch the spinach quickly flower and become bitter? Enter Malabar spinach, also known as New Zealand or Ceylon spinach, to the rescue.
Some Background on Malabar Spinach
Malabar spinach is not directly related to the familiar spinach we're accustomed to. Instead, it is a perennial vine native to India and Southeast Asia. Malabar spinach was brought to England in 1771, when botanist Joseph Banks introduced it to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew after his voyage on the Endeavor with Captain Cook. By 1820, it was widely grown in both English and French kitchen gardens.
There are two main species, Basella alba, with white or green stems and Basella rubra, with red stems. The triangle-shaped leaves are 3 inches or more long, with a flavor that is distinct from true spinach and is variously described as citrus-like or peppery yet mild. The leaves are very juicy, which may translate into slimy if overcooked. As with true spinach, Malabar spinach is rich in minerals, especially calcium and iron and vitamins A and C. In China, both the leaves and roots have been used medicinally for digestive problems.
How to Grow Malabar Spinach
Malabar spinach is very sensitive to cool temperatures, so it's best to start the seeds either indoors 6 weeks before the last frost date or plant directly into the garden after all danger of frost is past and night temperatures are above 60 degrees F. The seed coat is very hard, so to speed germination, soak the seed in water for 24 hours before sowing. Sow one-half inch deep and space 24 inches apart. If seed are allowed to develop at the end of the growing season, plants will sometimes self-sow.
Since Malabar spinach is a vine that can grow 12 feet or more, plan to grow it on a fence, trellis, or tuteur. Alternatively, let it be a ground cover. Although Malabar spinach grows best with plenty of moisture, it will tolerate hot, dry conditions. It can also be grown in containers.
The first harvest of Malabar spinach is possible about 8 to 10 weeks after sowing. Continue to harvest regularly to maintain a regular supply of young growth. Plants will continue to grow until frost. Malabar spinach has practically no pests, although downy mildew is occasionally a problem.
You may be hard-pressed to find seeds of Malabar spinach in your local garden center, but they can usually be found in mail-order seed catalogs, especially those featuring Asian vegetables.
Ways to Use Malabar Spinach
The flavor of Malabar spinach is best right after harvest, although it will store for several days in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Try the leaves raw on sandwiches or in salads, mixing them with other tender fresh greens, if desired. Or, steam, lightly boil, or use in stir fries. A web search will yield a wide variety of recipes, with many featuring Indian dishes, including adding them to dal.
A popular way to fix Malabar spinach is slice the leaves into strips half-inch wide. Heat some butter in a skillet, then saute onions and chiles until golden. Add some garlic, cumin seeds, and mustard seeds, cooking until the mustard seeds start to pop. Add the Malabar spinach and cook, stirring, until the leaves wilt and darken a bit.
To find out if you want to grow Malabar spinach next summer, try to find it at farmers' markets this summer or at Asian groceries.
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