Tropical Spinaches

A vine with red stems and green heart-shaped leaves
Malabar spinach

Finding edible plants to grow in the summer garden can be a real challenge. Turning to some of the less well-known vegetables can be just what Florida gardeners need to keep their edible gardens producing through the summer heat.

Tropical spinaches include Malabar spinach, Okinawa spinach, longevity spinach, and more. While not true spinaches (Spinacia oleracea) they can keep you harvesting leafy greens all summer long.

Malabar Spinach

Malabar spinach (Basella spp.) has many names including Ceylon spinach, climbing spinach, gui, acelga trepadora, bretana, libato, vine spinach, and Malabar nightshade. It’s not a true spinach, which is a cool-season vegetable in Florida, but the edible leaves formed on this vining plant resemble spinach leaves and can be used the same way.

Malabar spinach is originally from India and is widely cultivated in the tropics, especially in moist lowlands. Plants grow best during warm, rainy periods as moisture is important. When cooked, Malabar spinach is less slick in texture than other greens. In Bengali cuisine, it’s cooked with chopped onions, hot chilies, and a little mustard oil.

A small amount of shade is beneficial for these plants, although they can be grown in full sun. Malabar spinach grows well from either seeds or cuttings, and the vines will perform best when grown on a trellis. Two plants will generally produce sufficient quantities of leaves to provide a small family with greens during summer and fall.

Not only can they provide you with tasty greens, the plants are quite ornamental. The species Basella rubra has red leaves while B. alba has green leaves.

Okinawa Spinach

Plant with narrow, edged leaves, some of which are green and are burgundy
Bicolor Okinawa spinach. Photo courtesy of Forest & Kim Starr.

Okinawa spinach is another great “non-spinach,” heat-tolerant, leafy green. Okinawa spinach creates a low ground cover. The flavorful leaves can be added raw to fresh salads, steamed, juiced, used in stir fries, soups, smoothies, and quiches. Leaves and tender shoots have a mucilaginous (think okra) quality, especially when cooked.

There are two species of Okinawa spinach; Gynura crepioides has green leaves, and Gynura bicolor has green and purple foliage. This plant is in the Asteraceae family, the same family as sunflowers. It is native to Japan, northeastern India to Nepal, Myanmar, and southern China.

Okinawa spinach is known by many names: Hung tsoi, dawn dewa, leaves of the gods, Mollucan spinach, handama, gynura, purple spinach, or red vegetable. In its native range, it has other names as well.

Okinawa spinach thrives particularly well in Southwest Florida. It can be harvested almost year-round in the tropics and subtropics, and is an annual in cooler climates.

These plants grow in full sun to partial shade, need average waterings, and reach 2 to 3 feet tall. Okinawa spinach produces yellow flowers, but doesn’t produce seeds. Flowers should be cut off to help the plant focus energy on leaf production. The plant spreads quickly but isn’t overly aggressive. Harvesting increases production, so the more you take the more you’ll produce. Harvest the leaves and the top 4 to 6 inches of shoots; plants can take a severe pruning.

Since they don’t produce seeds, plants are propagated by herbaceous stem cuttings. Just stick cuttings directly into the soil in your garden. Plants should be spaced 18 to 24 inches apart. Okinawa spinach is also well-suited for container gardening.

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