Ever heard of it? Now, if, like me, you like green beans, then this is one that I cannot stress enough how much I think you really ought to be growing it. I mean, really, this is probably the most remarked upon and coolest plant I’ve ever grown in my garden. When people see my “Bean Wall” for the first time the response is always awe and delight and usually you hear the phrase “Oh my gosh!” uttered. The photo above is me and my grandson Liam picking beans two seasons ago from my smaller-than-it-is-now bean wall. This sight to behold is known as the Chinese long bean (Vigna unguiculata) but is also known as the yard-long bean, snake bean or asparagus bean. While a valued staple in many Asian gardens this wonderful veggie is incredibly infrequent in most American’s vegetable gardens - not to mention grocery stores. Well that needs to change! These prolific climbers produce beans that are 2-3 feet in length and produce abundantly throughout the summer just like a normal green bean does. The leaves are bright green, compound with three heart shaped smaller leaflets. Both flowers and pods are usually formed in joined pairs. The blooms are similar in appearance to those of the regular green bean, with the color varying from white, to pink to lavender.
Start Chinese long beans from seed and plant them just like a regular green bean, about ½ inch deep and a foot or so out from each other in rows or grids. Seeds will germinate between 10-15 days. Long beans prefer warm summers and direct sunlight for maximum production. Chinese Long Beans are aggressive climbers, so make sure to plant them next to a high trellis, fence, or pole. I ran steel wire down from a garden obelisk this year for them to grow on. They easily climbed that wire, reached the top of the obelisk, and then reached out to the tree branches above it and were on their way through the tree. Chinese yard long beans mature rapidly and you may need to harvest the beans daily.
And if you see a few beans on their that are no longer crispy looking well leave them on the vie to dry – these will be your seeds for next year’s plants.
Man are they beautiful! They really are quite stunning. The only way they could be better is if they had a sweet aroma, but alas, they don’t seem to have any scent at all – not that I could detect anyway. The beans themselves usually grow in pairs, so you’ll often find blossoms attached to each other as well, or one flower developing right after another flower is done, like what you can see in the photo below, note the baby bean growing on the left, right next to this blossom?
Looking for a delicious leafy summer green?
A cool, crisp, salad on a summer day is a wonderful thing, but did you know that salad really isn't a summer food? Yes, we can find tidy greens in the supermarket all year round, but most lettuce varieties, as well as greens like our beloved arugula, really don't like summer heat. They are difficult to grow in Hays County during our summers and unless grown inside or under cover, most greens will quickly bolt, wilt, fail to germinate, and basically pout all summer long until the cooler weather of fall arrives. So, what is a San Marcos gardener to do? Those of us in the know will tell you that the real stars of summer salads and sautés are not found in those cool weather greens at all, you’ll need to look elsewhere; enter Malabar spinach.
Malabar spinach features large luscious leaves, on a vine that reaches up to 30 feet or more pretty quickly. The plant blooms lovely pinkish-purple flowers all through the heat, and develops little grape-like fruits, that though not conventionally eaten, can be used to make blueish-purple dye. This leafy green is not actually a member of the spinach family and while the taste is similar to spinach, this delicacy is a very warm-season crop unlike the standard spinach grown in cooler parts of the US. This enjoyable treat is native to tropical Asia, probably originating from India or Indonesia, and is extremely heat tolerant.
Malabar spinach is grown throughout the tropics as a perennial and in warmer temperate regions as an annual. It loves our Texas summers though and provides pleasing and nutritious leaves all season long. There are two main species of Malabar spinach: Basella alba, which has green stems and thick fleshy leaves, and Basella ruba which has red stems. The mucilaginous texture is especially useful as a thickener in soups and stews. Personally, I love the red stem variety as the maroon and green looks beautiful climbing along my chain link fence.
Malabar spinach will grow well in a variety of soil conditions but prefers a moist fertile soil with plenty of organic matter and a soil pH of between 6.5 and 7.5. Malabar spinach plants can be grown in part shade, which will increase the leaf size, but it much prefers hot, humid and full sun exposures. In full sun the leaves will be slightly smaller, but the vine will grow much faster and larger producing far more leaves than will be produced when grown in the shade.
Malabar spinach also needs constant moisture to prevent the blossoming, which will turn the leaves bitter, ideally an area with a warm, rainy climate is optimal Malabar spinach. Of course, we do not really get that type of weather during our summer months, so I recommend a drip irrigation system or soaker hose setup to keep them happy.
Malabar spinach can be grown from either seeds or cuttings, but I find it is easiest to grow from cuttings. In fact, when I am out harvesting leaves and stems and find a stem that is too big or too tough to eat, I simply push it into the soil and most of time it will re-root. What could be easier?
If you are not going to grow your own Malabar Spinach you can still enjoy it as you can find it for sale at just about any Asian or Indian grocery store. It's a popular green in Asian, Indian, and even African cuisine and has been enjoyed as a food source for over 2000 years. In Africa they tend to eat the tender vining shoots more than the leaves themselves, but I find that both the leaves and stems are very delicious. By the way, they are also very nutritious. Typical of many leafy vegetables, Malabar spinach is high in vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, and calcium. It is also rather low in calories by volume, but quite high in protein per calorie. The succulent mucilage is a particularly rich source of plant based soluble fiber, something we all need to have more of in our diets.
Grow your own or buy it from the market, once you have a good supply, using Malabar spinach is just like using regular spinach greens. Delicious cooked, Malabar spinach is not as slimy as some other greens. In India, it is cooked with spicy chilies, chopped onion and mustard oil. Found frequently in soups, stir-fries and curries, Malabar spinach holds up better than regular spinach and doesn’t wilt as rapidly. Although when it is cooked most folks say that they cannot tell the difference between this and normal spinach, Malabar spinach raw is a revelation of the juicy, crisp flavors of citrus and pepper. One of its Chinese names literally means ‘flowing water vegetable’ so you can bet it offers a crispy crunch when eat raw. It is delicious mixed in with other greens in tossed salads. However you decide to use Malabar spinach, you just need to try some this summer! Both as a cooked green and as a crispy raw green veggie.Malabar spinach is really for anyone of us that love our greens but find the warm days of summer a bit too hot for their taste. Malabar spinach has its place in the kitchen garden, providing cool, crisp greens for the long, hot summer days.
The truth is that discovering Malabar spinach and yard-long Chinese green beans has really been a boon for me and my family. We look forward to the summer time months not just for the vacations at the beach and waterpark fun but for the wonderful veggies too!