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 asked for people who would like to receive free seeds to grow this plant and then to contribute its berries to scientists for research.  We had a great response!

The vine

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 steadfastly 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.

The berries

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.

The Research

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. But scientists, who are in Europe, have been searching for the dried berries to conduct research and asked gardeners in Australia to grow the vines, harvest the berries then dry them either in the sun or in a dehydrator.   And, of course, they could eat some of the leaves on the way! A large number of people contacted them for a starter pack containing a packet of free seeds and some simple growing instructions.

Dome built at a primary school in Alberton,, SA

From this great response 10 kg pf dried berries were obtained and sent to the European researchers. Most of the dried berries came from an amazing garden at a primary school in Alberton SA. The gardener there had grown the spinach over a dome-like wire structure to provide shade.  About 8 kg of dried berries came from this structure.

It is amazing how connections can be made in the organic gardening world –  one was someone who has a connection to a small village in the Philippines.  Some of the villagers are now growing the spinach to collect the berries.  Apparently it grows wild there.  The researchers are hoping that the villagers will become the main suppliers since they are in real need of the income.  We’ll see.

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26463240
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4425174/