Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Spinach by Any Other Name?

New Zealand spinach, (Tetragonia tetragonioides) as its name implies, is indigenous to New Zealand, but it is not spinach at all.  Not only does it look different from our regular spinach, the two are not even in the same plant family.   However, some will tell you that NZ spinach tastes better. It can be eaten fresh in salads or steamed and is especially good sautéed in olive oil and garlic.

The advantage in planting this species is that it grows in hot weather (up to 95° F) and will not bolt.  Bolting is the premature flower formation initiated by hormones within the plant system in response to high temperatures, as well as drought and starvation.  This unwelcome occurrence in leafy plants such as cabbage, lettuce and spinach,  takes the plant out of its leaf producing mode and switches over to flower and seed production.  The fact that NZ spinach is resistant to bolting makes it ideal for growing in tropical climates.

In regions with mild winters, this spinach acts like a perennial with frequent picking stimulating new growth. The plant will reach a height of 1-2 feet, spreading to 2-3 feet across. The seeds are large and germinate slowly. Soaking for 24 hours before planting will help germination. Rows need to be 24-30 inches apart, plants 12-15 inches apart. The first foliage is ready for harvest about 2 months after seeding.

NZ spinach is low in saturated fat and cholesterol. It is a good source of many vitamins and minerals: thiamin, niacin, foliate, pantothenic acid, phosphorus, potassium, zinc and a very good source of vitamin A, vitamin C, riboflavin, vitamin B6, calcium, iron, magnesium, copper and manganese.

Malabar spinach (Basella alba, B. ruba) is yet another spinach substitute, unrelated to the New Zealand spinach.  It is also known as Ceylon spinach and Vietnamese spinach. This is the one that has the mucilaginous texture (it’s slimy) and is useful as a thickener in soups and stews.

It is a fast growing vine which tolerates high rainfall. It grows best when trellised and is well adapted to high temperatures, even into the 90s F. But growth is disappointing when temperatures stay below 80 F. The plant requires consistent moisture to keep it from flowering, which will cause bitterness in the leaves.