Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the August 13, 2017 Newsletter issued from Rancho Regensis north of Valladolid, Yucatán, MÉXICO

A while back on a visit with Jerry at his Neem farm southwest of Mérida, I was given a couple of small, potted sprouts of what Jerry called Climbing Spinach. I had no idea what it was botanically, but it looked exactly like what Spinach should look like if it were a vine. I planted the slips and now they have produced remarkably fast-growing runners over six feet long (2m), a small portion shown below:

Climbing Spinach, BASELLA ALBA

It's unusual to find a garden crop not already planted by the Maya, that can withstand our rainy season's overabundance of diseases and plant-eating insects. Our Climbing Spinach is a little bug-eaten, but at least it's surviving and producing plenty of harvest, which is very noteworthy and encouraging.

But, what is this plant? Its leaves are so Spinach-like that at first I sought it in the Spinach/Amaranth Family, but nothing turned up there. As a last resort I did the very un-botanist thing of searching on the Internet under the key words "climbing spinach," which I'd assumed was just a made-up name, but there it was:

It's BASELLA ALBA, a member of the little-heard-of Basella Family, embracing 19 or so mostly tropical American species. Our Basella alba not only is sometimes known as Climbing Spinach but also as Vine Spinach, Creeping Spinach, Red Vine Spinach, Malabar Spinach, Malabar Nightshade, Buffalo Spinach and Ceylon Spinach. It's native to southeastern Asia and thereabouts, plus it's escaped in various tropical countries.

Its similarity to Spinach is mostly incidental, though on the Phylogenetic Tree of Life the Basella and Amaranth Families reside in the general vicinity of one another. The Basella Family is closer to the Purslane/Portulaca Family, which also produces crisply succulent, often edible leaves.

Actually, in the woods at Chichén Itzá our hut was surrounded by high-twining vines which turned out to be one of the Basella Family's other 18 species. That was Anredera vesicaria, whose page showing a fast-growing, slender vine with leaves somewhat like our Climbing Spinach, appears at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/anredera.htm

That species is a true vine, but I find that Climbing Spinach would rather scramble about the ground, growing over things, and displays very little tendency to twine about.

I'm experimenting with rooting stem sections of our vine, for this species is worth cultivating on a larger scale. I hope to show results of this effort in a later Newsletter.

from the August 27, 2017 Newsletter issued from Rancho Regensis north of Valladolid, Yucatán, MÉXICO

On the Internet I've seen that cut sections of Climbing Spinach roots easily if root-grow hormone is used. Here we have no root-grow, so I experimented with placing the bottom ends of stem sections in water. The sections averaged about 15 inches (38cm) in length. Below, you can see my experiment using a discarded Styrofoam cooling container:

Climbing Spinach, BASELLA ALBA, rooting stem sections

After a week with each stem partly submerged in water, about half of the stems developed rootlets on the submerged parts, as shown below:

Climbing Spinach, BASELLA ALBA, rooted stem section

The picture shows one of the most robustly rooting stems; most stems were too weakly rooted to think of potting. I did pot the one in the picture, and five days later the sprout was growing nicely. In the picture, notice that rootlets arise all along the stem, not just at nodes where leaves arise, as is the case with many plants. Also, I found that stem sections cut only at the base but with growing terminal shoots produced more roots than sections cut at both ends.

The mother vine had produced some side sprouts that fell to the ground and rooted. Those rooted sections were cut and transplanted into pots. However, they died and now I believe it was because I'd let the pots receive too much sunlight. This time I've kept the newly potted rooted sections in continual shade and they've all survived. I'll be gradually moving the transplanted sprouts into more sunlight before planting them in their permanent spot.

Our first plants were placed so they could climb a trellis-like affair constructed from tree limbs. However, the plants didn't want to climb at all, despite their common name, so this time I'll be planting them in a flat bed where runners can root wherever they touch the ground, and thus be less vulnerable to water shortages and accidental stem damage.

from the October 1, 2017 Newsletter issued from Rancho Regensis north of Valladolid, Yucatán, MÉXICO

Below, you can see Climbing Spinach plants rooted about a month ago, not using root-grow hormone:

Climbing Spinach, BASELLA ALBA, rooted stem sections after one month