We've all been there, there at the garden center toward the end of the season when there are tons of unclaimed plants and the growing season is coming to a close. What happens to the poor unclaimed annual plants? Well, they go home with people for really, really cheap depending on where you do your shopping. (Insert plant happy dance here!)
The latest finds for the season were two plants that are somewhat nostalgic to me because of time I spent in Florida learning about & growing subtropical and tropical edible plants. Hopefully you will find them interesting and useful in those crucial horticulture trivia moments at dinner parties.
The first is Malabar Spinach or Basella alba, also referred to at Ceylon Spinach or Climbing Spinach. Basella is an edible trailing or climbing rope-like vine that can grow several feet in one season. It is native to tropical Asia. While growing this plant in Florida, the vines easily climbed up and back down 7' trellising, thriving in its tropical environment but would likely be less vigorous in our cooler temperatures. Especially since we've had approximately 6 days of summer weather this year. Although Malabar is not known to have many insect problems in the subtropics besides soil nematodes – apparently in our Midwest plant/insect culture, wooly worm caterpillars are very curious about this plant as they had been feasting on it until they discovered the pineapple sage. The sage must be MUCH more appealing to their delicate palate.
Malabar spinach leaves can be used just as you would spinach or swiss chard. They can be eaten raw, steamed, or stir-fried. They do have a noticeably more succulent texture and can be mucilaginous with extended cooking time. The flavor of the leaves would be best described as "green" if that is allowable. It really doesn't have a distinct flavor to talk about but it is mild.
The second plant that took up residence in our bucket garden collection was Cranberry Hibiscus, sold under the name Maple Sugar Hibiscus, False Roselle or Hibiscus acetosella. The brilliantly red leaves of cranberry hibiscus are also edible and a tasty addition to salads and stir fries. The leaves have a tangy or tart cranberry-like flavor. It is unlikely that the plant will have an opportunity to flower in our northern climate since it requires short days and warm temperatures but the flowers are an attractive small pink traditional hibiscus-like flower. Again this would be a perennial in lands much warmer than ours, however will only be an annual in our gardens.
So, what's the point of growing these unique edibles? It keeps gardening interesting, it makes people ask questions, or at the very least, just for the shock value when you grab a foreign leaf and start munching on it. Variety is the spice of life, right?