The Best Plant for a Hot Planet

This crop is a climate change champ

Paul Greenberg

--

A salad green that climbs, prospers in shade and sun, grows fast and tastes good

Do you have a difficult garden? I do. I’ve been working the same slab of concrete here at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan, trying to achieve what I call “salad self-sufficiency” for 15 years. And thanks to a crop I discovered a few years back, I think I may have finally done it.

The plant in question is Basella alba more commonly known as malabar spinach. I discovered it in an Asian vegetable seed catalogue and decided to give it a go. Because I have limited horizontal space, but plenty of vertical, I wanted to find a salad green that could go up as well as out. Moreover, because temperatures on my terrace can be 5–10 degrees hotter than street level, I needed something that beat the heat if I wanted to have salad after the cool, well, salad days of spring had passed.

It’s nice knowing that as autumns and springs get swallowed up by hotter and longer summers the home gardener does not have have to abandon crisp, nutritious salad greens.

According to the University of Madison-Wisconsin’s ag extension team, Malabar spinach is native to tropical Asia with a likely origin point of Sri Lanka or Indonesia. It is a “semi-succulent” meaning that it has a waxy layer of protection over its leaves that make it stand up to crazy heat. That layer doesn’t bother me in the slightest in a salad. The leaves are crisp but tender and just require a slightly finer cut than traditional spinaches.

But where malabars really thrive is in South Asian and Mediterranean preparations. If you’re going to cook the leaves, you do need to blanch them in boiling water for about 2 minutes first. This removes the waxy layer, which, sadly, goes slimy when cooked. Once you’ve par boiled and rinsed you’re ready to go. Malabars make a killer base for a palak paneer (which, by the way can be made vegan). Left in whole leaf form and sautéed with potatoes you can get a tremendously nice Croatian blitva out of them.

Whatever you do with malabars, it’s just nice knowing that as autumns and springs get swallowed up by increasingly brutal and longer summers the home gardener doesn’t have have to abandon crisp, nutritious salad greens when the going gets hot.

My guess is in the coming years my salad self-sufficiency will depend on more and more my malabars.

--

--

Paul Greenberg

New York Times bestselling author of Four Fish as well as The Climate Diet and Goodbye Phone, Hello World paulgreenberg.org