Feb 272018

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.

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 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.

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. ).Ā  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 catland@optusnet.com.au 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.

Good growing!

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26463240
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4425174/
  3. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1541-4337.12185/abstract

  18 Responses to “Malabar Spinach Research Project”

  1. Growing in the Kununurra Community Garden, WA. Link shared to this page šŸ™‚

  2. Thank you for suggesting this. We are very happy for our information to be read by others. Can you please make sure that the header which has the SGA logo and “Cuttings” in it is included?

  3. Hello. I work in a little shop that sells Eden Seeds and, as I am a keen gardener, wondered if it is permitted to print off your regular email and put it up in the shop for other gardeners? thanks, Paula

  4. Please contact the email address in the article.

  5. Just dry the berries please

  6. So you’d like us to collect and dry the flesh, not the whole berry? IE seed surrounded by dried flesh? That could be quite tricky…

  7. Yes interested

  8. We have checked out the quarantine regulations and there don’t seem to be any difficulties with posting seeds. It will be best to contact the email address in our article since they are coordinating seed and berry distribution.

  9. Thank you for asking this IMPORTANT question. We didn’t check this out before since there are different regulations in each state and we wanted to wait until we knew which states volunteer growers lived in. Basella alba, one of the species of Malabar spinach is approved for WA, but we are still to establish the quarantine regulations for other states. Please be patient with us. It would be best, if you are interested in growing it, to contact the email address in the article and they will provide you with information.

  10. I live in Perth, WA, can seeds be sent interstate by post?

  11. As the article states, it will grow as an annual in southern regions and die back in winter.

  12. Thank you!

  13. I grow this very useful green vegetable by simply buying it in early summer from greengrocers and using a few of the stems as cuttings (they sprout readily)\ in free-draining mix. They last until about early April in the open garden here (minimum of -6C last July – ugh!) and until about June in the unheated glasshouse. As a raw plant (in salads) they have an unattractive mucilaginous ‘mouth feel’. But they’re very useful when cooked, particularly as they thicken any curry or similar ‘wet’ food. The green-stemmed form is hardier and quicker-growing than the red-stemmed form. If you allow the flowers to develop (ie. you do not not pinch them off) they fruit readily.

  14. Would this plant grow in North Central Victoria ?
    Up here we have very very hot summers with hot winds and in the winter we drop to below freezing.
    I was thinking of using it as a natural summer wind break around our vegetable garden.

  15. This grows easily here in CQ and needs very little love. It tastes great and it quite a pretty plant : – )

  16. Awesome project! I’m in!! Sent an email to Pauline! šŸ™‚

  17. Please see the addition to that: any remaining flesh on the mature seeds no longer contains the pigments.

  18. I am a bit confused by last comment, do not let the plant go to seed…
    Aren’t the purple berries the seed?

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