Known by many local names, this spinach plant has long been cultivated in tropical Africa, India and Southeast Asia, but its precise origins are unknown.
It is an annual or biennial herb made up of soft, succulent stems 3 to 5 m (10 to 16 ft) long that are much-branched, vine-like and twining, climbing up and over vertical structures. There are two known varieties in cultivation, the most common with stems and leaf stalks that are green, the other wine red.
Leaves broadly oval or heart-shaped, 7 to 15 cm (2.8 to 6 in) long, glossy dark green, prominently veined and with a thick, fleshy texture. The are alternately arranged along the length of the vine.
Flowering is induced by shortening day lengths from autumn to winter, with the flowers small, white or pink, depending on the variety, borne on short spikes arising from the leaf bases. They are bisexual, with both female and male parts, and are soon followed small round berries, about 7 mm (0.3 in) in diameter, ripening to dark purple or near black with juicy pulp surrounding a single large seed.
The young stems and leaves are versatile in their use and can be eaten fresh in salads, steamed similar to spinach, stir-fried or used as a green vegetable in soups, casseroles and stews. They have a taste that can be compared to spinach but is more subtle and when cooked for a while develop a mucilaginous or slimy quality like okra, which can serve as a thickener for sauces. When lightly cooked its succulent texture is maintained and in Thailand it is served with 'nam phrik', a spicy, chilli-based, hot sauces typical of Thai cuisine.
The vines are ready for harvesting from six to eight weeks after sowing and are productive, which a single vine producing about 1.5 kgs (3.3 lbs) of fresh leaves and young shoots over a six month period. Frequent harvesting at weekly intervals delays flowering and stimulates new leaf growth.
The red juice from the ripe fruit is used as a colouring agent in unheated medicines and foods, such as chilled dairy desserts. It is also used as a facial rouge in cosmetics. Heating the juice causes the colour to degrade, which limits its application.
The young shoots and leaves are high in magnesium, calcium and zinc.
Grows naturally in humid subtropical and tropical climates, generally frost-free areas with annual lows of 10 to 25 °C, annual highs of 20 to 35 °C and annual rainfall of 800 to 4500 mm.
Growth and leaf production slows where the average low of the warmest month falls below 16 °C (63 °F), such as in tropical highland areas above 1000 m (3300 ft) elevation.
New plants are started from seed or cuttings. The seed are sown in seed trays or containers near the end of the dry season and the seedlings transplanted to prepared beds at the start of the rainy season.
Alternately, cuttings taken at the start of the rainy season are planted directly in the beds but need shading until they set root and start to grow. As the vine grows it is best supported on a trellis or similar structure to keep the leaves off the ground, free of dirt and to make harvesting them easier.
It grows best and is most productive during the warm rainy months when most other vegetable crops perform poorly. Vines start to lose vigour after around six months and tend to die back after twelve months, though they may only grow as annual in subtropical areas or in tropical areas with a pronounced dry season.
Performs well on rich or well-manured, free-draining clay, loam and sand soils of a moderately acid to slightly alkaline nature, generally with a pH of 5.5 to 7.5 and site with full to partial sun exposure.
Birds eat the fruit and disperse the seed outside of cultivation, where they germinate readily. It is listed as a weed in more than one reference publication and is assessed as a high weed risk species for Hawaii by the Hawaii Pacific Weed Risk Assessment project (HPWRA).
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