Cook, Cultivate

Malabar Spinach – How to Grow and Use

Have you ever heard of malabar spinach? I had never heard of it until I started looking for veggies that would grow well in the Phoenix desert in the summer. And boy, does malabar spinach meet that requirement! When everything else in our garden was languishing this summer, this vine was flourishing!

Malabar spinach - mature vine

And yes – you read that right. Malabar spinach actually grows as a vine. It’s a very pretty plant with red stems, large lush green leaves, and eventual light pink flowers. This would also make a lovely ornamental vine. But its leaves are also edible! So in my book that makes it a win-win:

Malabar spinach is both pretty AND edible!

When and How to Plant Malabar Spinach

This was my first year growing malabar spinach. I knew it was a warm-weather grower, but I decided to plant it early in the spring when I planted many of my other greens. I was hoping it would get a head start growing, and then just maintain through the summer. That was definitely a mistake, however. This plant didn’t even start growing until it was in the 90s!

I direct sowed the malabar spinach seeds into our garden boxes at the end of February when we were first sowing our spring garden. (If you’re not familiar with our growing seasons in the SW desert, keep in mind that we can typically start our spring crops after Valentine’s Day – it rarely freezes after that point.) A few of those seeds sprouted, but languished and either died or just sat there about an inch tall, not growing at all. I re-seeded at the end of April, and those seedlings did sprout and grow, for the most part, but still very slowly. It wasn’t until it really warmed up by the end of May/early June, that these seedlings really started to grow.

The good news is, once they started to grow, they really took off! I have plants placed every six inches or so along my trellis, and could probably have seeded half that many for how dense this vine is growing.

Malabar spinach - tendrils

Growing Tips

I have just a couple growing tips for getting the most out of this vine. It really doesn’t need much of your help! In our garden, it gets partial sun throughout the day, but is shaded during the hottest parts of the afternoon.

  • First of all, don’t bother seeding until it is warm out! I’d say at least 80’s during the day.
  • Make sure you have a dedicated trellis! This vine will take over whatever it can reach.
  • The more you trim, the more it grows! I was hesitant to trim any leaves when this vine first started growing, but I soon learned that trimming is exactly what it needs. For every leaf you trim, a new vine will branch out!
  • So far in our garden, the malabar spinach has been resistant to all our usual pests (aphids, cabbage worms, spider mites). I keep an eye out for any signs of intruders, but have yet to find any that it is particularly susceptible to. And that adds a third “win” to this crop:

Malabar spinach is also pest resistant!

How to Use Malabar Spinach

Malabar spinach doesn’t really taste like the “normal” spinach you typically find in the produce section. Some people think it has a bitter flavor, similar to swiss chard. For me, I don’t get that bitter flavor except for in the larger leaves. But it does have a somewhat slimy texture. It’s leaves are actually kind-of succulent like, which is what I believe contributes to its slimy nature.

Malabar spinach - succulent leaves

So, how do you eat something that is slimy and can be bitter? 🙂 I know, it doesn’t sound like much of a win for a veggie you may want to grow. But I’ve found a few ways to cook with it that we enjoy. Plus, just having a lush and flourishing vine in the garden during the summer makes it worth it to me, no matter if you eat it or just look at it!

  • Eat it raw. If you are OK with the flavor, eating malabar spinach raw is actually pretty good. Less of the sliminess comes through. And, mixed in with some other greens for a salad, you would never even know you’ve got an unusual addition!
  • Add it to casseroles, sautés, or soups. Chop it up, and toss it into any cooked dish that calls for spinach, chard, or other wild/hearty green. It takes a little longer than spinach to cook down, so keep that in mind for when you add it to your dish.
  • Make creamed “spinach” with it. This is possibly our favorite use for malabar spinach. For a quick and easy version of creamed spinach, just wilt down a large saute pan full of malabar spinach. When it is nearly cooked down, but some liquid still remains in the pan, toss in one or two of the “Laughing Cow” soft cheese wedges. Stir until melted and fully incorporated, and voila – a simple, low-cal creamed spinach straight from your garden! (PS – the spicy pepper jack flavor of cheese is an excellent choice here!)
  • Steam and freeze it for later. In order to try and get the most use out of this vine as possible, I started storing some away for later use. I harvested, chopped, washed the leaves. Then for simplicity, just steamed in a steamer basket until mostly cooked down. Blanching is another option for pre-cooking the spinach, but the steamer basked was simple and worked just fine for me. Once cooked, cool and squeeze out as much liquid as possible, then divide up and freeze. I divided into 1/2 or 1 cup portions, and then vacuum sealed. This spinach probably shrinks down by at least 4x, so 1/2 cup of cooked malabar spinach is equivalent to ~ 2 cups fresh.
Malabar spinach - prep

Time to give it a try!

And there you have it! My tips on planting, growing, and using malabar spinach. I have read that malabar spinach will grow as an annual through mild winters, so I plan to see just how long I can keep this vine growing 🙂 Now into mid-October, with our highs in the 80s, it continues to send out new shoots, and the flowers are coming in strong!

So if you also have hot summers and struggle to keep your garden growing through the season, why not plan out a spot to give this lovely and useful vine a try?

Malabar spinach - colorful

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