Basella alba

Malabar spinach


Basella alba

L. 1753

pronounced: buh-SELL-uh AL-buh

(Basellaceae — the Madeira vine family)

synonym — Basella cordifolia

Lam. 1785

pronounced: buh-SELL-uh kor-dih-FOH-lee-uh

common names: Malabar spinach, climbing spinach, phooi leaf

Basella is probably botanical Latin for the Indian name for the plants, although it is also the Latin for ‘a little base’. Alba is from the Latin albus, white, and in the synonym cordifolia is also Latin, cor (cordis), the heart, and folium, a leaf. Malabar is a hill region on the coast of southern India. This plant is not actually a close relative of true spinach, Spinacia oleracea, which is a member of the family of Amaranthaceae .

Climbing Spinach is a very fast-growing vine native to tropical Africa and Asia. The dark green semi-succulent leaves are broadly ovate, up to about 12 cm long. They have a mucilaginous texture, and so are useful as a thickener in soups and stir-fries. The vine is grown in many tropical countries as a culinary herb or as a substitute for spinach. It has an agreeable flavour, and can be eaten either raw or cooked. The plants bloom almost non-stop, given the right conditions.

The inflorescence is a simple spike in the axils of leaves. The flowers are small, and pinkish white, and hard black seeds are ultimately produced. Basella alba will grow in full sun to partial shade, and prefers a rich, moist soil. The plant is propagated either by cuttings or by seed. Seeds germinate quickly, within a week to a fortnight of sowing. Some gardeners prefer to soak the seeds in water overnight before sowing.

This is a very common vegetable in its countries of origin, and the leaves are usually available in ethnic grocery shops. Only the young leaves are eaten, either boiled or steamed like spinach, or as a salad green. It is rich in vitamins A and C, iron and calcium. It is low in calories by volume, but high in protein per calorie. The succulent mucilage is a particularly rich source of soluble fibre. In Bangladesh Basella alba is widely used to cook with Hilsa. This is the most popular fish with Bengalis, and is the national fish of Bangladesh. It is a sea fish, but lays its eggs in the rivers. After being born the young Hilsa (at this stage known as Jatka) swim back to sea, and it is when they are on the way out to sea that they are caught for eating.

The plant is widely used in Chinese cuisine. In Vietnam, particularly in the north of the country, it is cooked with crab meat, luffa and jute to make soup. In parts of India, it is used in curries and bhaji.

The fruits of this plant contain a red dye that has been used for official seals. It can also be used as face rouge, and as a food colorant.

The variety Basella rubra (Latin ruber, red, ruddy) has red flowers and a bright purple-red stem; both Basella alba and Basella rubra are edible, but the commercially-grown cultivars belong to Basella alba.


Photographs taken at Picnic Bay & Nelly Bay, 2010, 2011
Page last updated 18th October 2018