A great spinach to grow in summer as an alternative to English spinach, which can struggle in the heat, is Malabar spinach, also known as Ceylon spinach or vine spinach. Its berries contain a rich deep purple pigment which is currently the subject of research because it is thought to have a powerful capacity as a cancer preventive agent.
We are asking for people who would like to receive free seeds to grow this plant and then to contribute its berries to scientists for research.
This decorative vine can provide nutritious, lush, green leaves for cooking or salads all summer long. The small tender leaves are best for salads. Malabar spinach originated in tropical Africa and Asia so grows best in the warmer northern regions of Australia where it grows as a perennial. In cooler regions it will grow as a vigorous annual in summer, dying off in winter.
There are two species: Basella rubra with an attractive, dark red stem and B. alba with a green stem. Both species grow as a vine with many heart shaped, slightly spongy dark green leaves, which can become quite leathery with age. When grown in good compost and watered twice a week, the vines will climb steadfastedly upwards covering tripods and trellises creating a wall of leaves. Undeterred by extreme conditions they almost seem to go crazy in heatwaves.
Cook the leaves as you would spinach. They make valuable additions to curries and stews.
Towards the end of summer many small pink flowers appear which attract insects. The flowers transform into clusters of green berries which later turn deep purple. The rich deep purple pigment contains betacyanins which are being analysed by researchers.
It is known that these betacyanins are related to a similar pigment, betanin, found in red beetroot (Beta vulgaris L. ). Betanin is known to be capable of preventing growth of cancer cells and also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties 1 so red beetroot has been suggested to be a disease-preventing functional food 2.
The pigment in Malabar spinach, gomphrenin I, has a slightly different structure and preliminary studies show that it is even more potent than betanin 3.
But scientists, who are in Europe, are in need of the dried berries to do this work and are seeking gardeners to grow and harvest the berries. And, of course, you can eat some of the leaves on the way.
If you are interested in taking part in this research you can contact Pauline firstname.lastname@example.org for a starter pack containing a packet of free seeds and some simple growing instructions. After you have grown the vine, the berries can be collected and dried in the shade or in a dehydrator and mailed to Pauline who will send them on to the researchers. (She will provide her mailing address when you first contact her).
It is important that you do not let the plant go to seed i.e. mature and dry out, since the seeds no longer contain the pigment.