Tales of a Novice Gardener: Growing Red Malabar Spinach

Gardening in the desert takes plenty of effort and determination. Because of this, I tend to grow edibles that I can’t easily find in a regular grocery store. When I saw Malabar Spinach seeds in the Seed Library, I looked up the plant. Red Malabar Spinach is both attractive and edible, with its glossy green leaves and reddish-purple stems. It is heat tolerant (unlike actual spinach), which makes it possible to grow in Tucson in the summer. I’ve also never seen it in the grocery store. It checked all my boxes, so I decided to give it a try

Sowing Guide

Sow seeds outside when high temperatures are 90+ degrees Fahrenheit. File through the reddish dried “berry” part of the seed until you reach a tan color, and soak the seed overnight. My seeds germinated in 7-9 days, but it can take up to 3 weeks. Perhaps soaking the seeds hurried the germination along?

Malabar Spinach can also be grown from cuttings. Simply cut off a section of the vine, trim the end at an angle, and put the stem in water. It takes about a week for roots to form. Once the cutting has roots, plant it in garden soil and keep it moist for a few weeks. 

My Growing Experience

Not only can Malabar Spinach tolerate heat—it simply LOVES heat. The vines really started to grow rapidly when I was out of town in the middle of June. When I arrived home, the plants were climbing into the branches of the mesquite tree above it. What other plant likes June in Tucson? I grew my container of Malabar Spinach in filtered shade, and watered it every 1–2 days. I never saw it wilt, so I’d imagine it can be grown with less water. 

I didn’t have any problems with bugs or pests on this plant. The birds seem to enjoy taking an occasional bite from the leaves, but not enough to damage the plant. I’d recommend keeping it protected from animals while the plant is small. I protected mine with green plastic fencing, but the plant grew through the mesh while I was out of town.  Rabbits did not seem interested in the trailing vines that hung down from the planter. 

Be aware that this plant is quite cold sensitive. It will die back when temperatures are in the 40s at night. I’ve managed to overwinter some of the plants, but I do usually cover the container on cold nights (30s or below). It may be easier to simply sow a new batch of seeds each year.

Saving Seed

Simply wait until the berries turn dark purple/black, and pull them off the vine. Allow them to dry on a paper towel for several weeks before saving them for the next growing season or donating to the Seed Library. 

Now’s the time for my embarrassing confession: I found Malabar Spinach to be so incredibly attractive that I didn’t really do much in the way of eating the plant—it was too pretty to trim back! The leaves are thicker than true spinach, with a bit of a slimy texture when cooked (like okra or nopales). I did eat the leaves cooked with eggs (which was ok), and I had it in instant ramen (more enjoyable). I’m not much of a chef, but it should be appetizing in a soup or curry as well. Happy experimenting!    

Happy Gardening!