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Growing Malabar spinach

Quite different from the regular spinach variety but packed with nutrition

One of the joys of gardening is to try growing and using new plants. Sometimes we stumble upon a new plant quite by accident, as my wife and I did this past June. We were camping near Sydney, Manitoba and took a drive through nearby Austin where we came upon a greenhouse operation. It was located in a complex composed of a large workshop (producing things like concrete statuary), and a thrift store. The entire business is operated by an organization called Sprucedale Industries, which is a training centre that provides developmentally and/or physically handicapped adults a chance to experience and learn work skills.

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The greenhouse had an array of unusual plants not commonly seen in most commercial greenhouses and although it was early June and I had my planting all done, I came home with a couple of boxes of plants that I could not resist.

One of these was Malabar spinach, that I planted in a large container into which I secured a metre-high trellis. Malabar spinach — also called Ceylon spinach, climbing spinach, vine spinach as well as several other names — originates in tropical Asia, and is a food plant in India. It is a vine that has large fleshy leaves. There are two kinds, a green one with white stems and a red one with red stems. Mine is the red variety and the stems are quite a dark burgundy with dark-green leaves.

The plant is covered with clusters of small pink flowers which really look like tiny flower buds. They never seem to open very much but are quite prolific, and eventually the flowers turn into berries, which gradually turn dark purple. The leaves are oval to round and very fleshy.

This tropical plant likes high temperatures (no surprise given its origins in tropical India where temperatures often get into the 40s). It grows in moist lowlands and likes lots of water, prefers rich fertile soil that contains lots of organic matter, and it prefers its soil to be kept constantly moist. I have my container on the back patio and am careful not to let the soil dry out. The leaves will grow larger when the plant is exposed to part shade but will thrive best in full sun. Keeping the soil consistently moist prevents the development of flowers which will cause the leaves to become bitter.

This is an edible plant and the leaves can be harvested and used in soups and stir-fries, or cooked like ordinary spinach. Its stiff succulent leaves stand up better than those of ordinary spinach when it is cooked and it is not as slimy. Malabar spinach leaves can also be used in salads and add a crisp crunch. The taste is best described as citrusy/peppery. The leaves are high in vitamins A and C as well as calcium and iron, and are full of soluble fibre. In Asia the leaves are often cooked combined with onion, garlic, parsley and some kind of fish or shellfish.

I’m going to try to winter the plant over in my sunroom. This might not be easy as it likes warm (actually hot) temperatures and the sunroom can be cool. The plant is easily propagated by stem cuttings so in September I’ll plant some cuttings in a big container, put it in a sunny spot in the sunroom and see what happens.

I’m going to pick some of the dark-purple berries and see if I can squeeze some juice out of them. I’ve learned that the taste is quite acrid but it might be useful as a dye or to add colour to other juices. Perhaps a few drops added to juice being used to make jelly would heighten the colour without altering the taste of the jelly. I have lots of experimenting to do. Maybe this winter I’ll write an article chronicling my horticultural and culinary adventures with my Malabar spinach. Stay tuned…

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