There’s a new kid on the garden block. It’s exotic, easy to grow, beautiful, and so nutritious. Oh, and it thrives in hot weather. 

It’s called malabar spinach, and like New Zealand spinach, it’s not a “true spinach” at all. It’s actually a succulent that vines and forms lots of glossy green leaves that would look right at home in any tropical plant collection. The vines are green or a gorgeous dark red, depending on which variety you’re growing, and unlike regular spinach or kale, you can actually get dark purple berries from the white or purple flowers it produces. 

This vining plant is native to Southeast Asia, and it only arrived on the American scene in 2006. If you like traditional spinach and Swiss chard, you’ll probably enjoy the mild taste of these succulent leaves. Texture wise, the leaves have a slight crunch on the outside and a gooey inside. If that doesn’t sound appetizing, you could always try growing this one as an ornamental plant cuz it’s that beautiful (and the leaves are shaped like hearts!) 

Here’s everything you need to know to grow your own heart-shaped leaves. 

malabar spinach how to grow from seed to harvest. top picture of red vined malabar spinch and bottom photo of young malabar spinach growing in a container.

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Common Names of Malabar Spinach

This plant also goes by vine spinach, creeping spinach, Ceylon spinach, and Vietnamese spinach.

WHEN TO GROW MALABAR SPINACH

Malabar spinach is from a tropical climate, so it loves warm weather. Really, the warmer, the better. It thrives in temps between 75 and 95°F. If you live somewhere with hot summers, malabar spinach is a great option for your garden. It can handle the heat and will give you tons of leaves for your salad bowl when the high temperatures mean you can’t grow more traditional greens like lettuce and “real” spinach.

Since it can’t handle any frost, make sure to wait until after all danger of frost has passed to plant malabar spinach. The seeds germinate best in warm soil, so it’s best to wait until nighttime temps are staying above 60°F. You can keep planting malabar spinach until late summer or even beyond as long as you have a good two months before your first frost date.

IS MALABAR SPINACH A PERENNIAL?

This plant is technically what’s called a tender perennial, which means it’s capable of growing year round in sub-tropic locations that don’t experience cold temperatures. Most of us will need to grow these vines as an annual instead.

red vined malabar spinach

WHERE TO GROW MALABAR SPINACH

Pick a sunny spot for your malabar spinach. Most leafy greens do better in partial shade, but malabar spinach is a tropical plant that does best in full sun (at least 6 hours a day, though 8 or more is better).

It also likes well-drained soil rich in organic matter. I recommend growing it in a raised bed with a sturdy trellis. These vines are capable of growing up to 35 feet tall under optimal conditions—that’s in just one growing season!—so the taller your trellis, the better. If you have an arch trellis, malabar spinach would be the perfect climbing plant to grow over the summer if you want your garden to look like a tropical oasis.

If you don’t have raised beds, you can grow malabar spinach in a large pot or container at least 12 inches deep. Make sure your container is large enough to fit a panel or obelisk trellis. You’ll have to check on the soil moisture frequently since containers do dry out quicker than raised beds, and malabar spinach doesn’t like dry soil. 

DOES MALABAR SPINACH NEED A TRELLIS?

I highly recommend growing malabar spinach on a trellis. It’s a fast-growing vine that could easily spread over your entire garden space if it’s not able to climb. Without a trellis, you’ll either need to be ready to give over your garden to your malabar spinach plants or prune the vigorous vines frequently.

Need a trellis for your malabar spinach?

HOW TO PLANT MALABAR SPINACH

Before planting malabar spinach seeds or seedlings, add a couple inches of compost to the top of your garden.

PLANTING FROM SEED

You can start malabar spinach seeds indoors if you have a shorter warm season, or you can wait until temps are right to direct sow seeds outdoors. If you’re starting indoors, count backwards 6 to 8 weeks before your last frost date. I recommend using a heat mat if you have one, just until your seeds sprout. Make sure to check out our seed starting guide for more tips if you’re new to indoor seed starting.

When planting directly outdoors, you can soak the seeds overnight to speed up their germination (they have a tough outer coating).  Sow your seeds about 1/2″ deep and space them 12″ to 16″ apart right alongside your trellis. Keep the planting area well watered while you’re waiting on the seeds to sprout. You should see little green shoots appear in about 7 to 14 days.

PLANTING FROM TRANSPLANT

You may be lucky and find some malabar transplants or seedlings available at your local nursery or you using some of the seedlings you started indoors.  You will want to gently remove these seedlings from their pots and dig a hole the same size as the pot to place the spinach inside. Place these transplants at least 12″ apart.

very young malabar spinach seedling in a cardboard tube

HOW TO CARE FOR MALABAR SPINACH PLANTS

This is a super low-maintenance plant. It’s not even prone to pest problems, which is pretty much the exact opposite of every other leafy green you might grow in your vegetable garden.

Your most important tasks will be watering and feeding.

Watering

These plants do like to be regularly watered. If the soil becomes too dry, the plants will start to flower and the leaves will taste more bitter. Malabar spinach flowers are beautiful, but if you’re growing this plant for the leaves, you’ll want to delay flowering as long as possible.

Two of my favorite ways to deliver deep and consistent water to plants is with a drip irrigation system (this one is super easy to set up) or a GrowOya. If you’re watering by hand, make sure to aim your water at the soil, not the leaves, to avoid fungal issues.

Fertilizing

Malabar spinach does well with a high nitrogen fertilizer to promote leaf production. I like MicroLife’s Ocean Harvest or Fox Farms Grow Big for leafy greens. You can reapply every 2 to 4 weeks during the growing season.

WHEN TO HARVEST MALABAR SPINACH

Malabar spinach is ready to harvest about 50 to 70 days after planting. I like to wait to take the first leaves until I see a strong main stem. You can harvest leaves at any size, though I prefer the more mild flavor of young leaves. Use your fingers or a clean pair of pruners or scissors to cut individual leaves from the vines. 

In addition to leaves, you can also harvest flowers and berries if you’re interested. Both are 100 percent edible. Flowers are usually white, purple, or pink and form on the ends of vines. If you leave the flowers, they’ll turn into malabar spinach berries, which are ready when they’re dark purple. (Avoid eating them before they’re ripe, which can cause a stomach ache.) 

green vined malabar spinach ready to be harvested

HOW TO ENJOY MALABAR SPINACH

You can eat the leaves raw in a salad or even just as a side dish. The leaves develop a citrusy, slightly peppery flavor as they grow bigger. You can also toss them into cooked dishes like soups, stews, and stir fries. The mucilage in the leaves works as a great thickening agent (similar to okra).

Berries can also be enjoyed raw, or you can turn them into jam or bake them in pastry.

red vined malabar spinach growing up a bamboo trellis

MALABAR SPINACH BENEFITS

If you’re not yet excited to grow this plant, just wait until you hear about the health benefits of malabar spinach. It’s high in antioxidants and a great source of vitamin C, vitamin A, iron, calcium, folate, zinc, magnesium, and potassium. It even contains protein. If you’re someone with sleep issues, you may have noted the zinc and magnesium, which are both critical for a restful night. Toss some malabar spinach leaves into your dinner salad to catch more Zs.

The leaves also contain mucilage, which is a great source of soluble fiber. The flowers are equally full of vitamins and get their color from anthocyanin, an antioxidant. Interestingly enough, the flowers were traditionally used in some Asian cultures to ease labor pains and even create antidotes for poison. The berries, as you would probably expect, are also rich in vitamins and antioxidants and a good source of fiber.

IS MALABAR SPINACH BETTER FOR YOU THAN REGULAR SPINACH?

Both leaves have about 6% of your daily value of protein when cooked. They’re also pretty equal in fiber and calcium. Regular spinach does have more iron and potassium, but malabar spinach has more vitamin C. Like traditional spinach, malabar spinach does have oxalates (aka oxalic acid) but in lower levels. Oxalates are really good for us, but in some people, eating foods too rich in oxalic acid can cause kidney stones and other health problems.

malabar spinach vs regular spinach

Let us know if you have any questions about growing this beautiful warm-weather vegetable!