Okinawa spinach is an edible leafy green that once established will last for years with only pruning (harvesting) for maintenance.
The tops of the leaves are dark green with a striking purple underside that forms a handsome, dense ground-cover. You could landscape your front yard or your sidewalk with this plant and no-one need know, unless you tell them, that it’s edible and nutritious. The best part is that the more you eat it, the better it looks.
Okinawa spinach is native to Southeastern Asia. Its common names include Hong tsoi, Okinawa lettuce, and Cholesterol spinach. Its scientific name is Gynura crepioides or Gynura bicolor (for the two-toned coloration of the leaves)
In frost-free climates it requires little, if any, maintenance other than pruning (harvesting) and will produce abundant greens year-round, for years on end. If you get frosts, you can grow okinawa year round in containers.
So long as it gets adequate warmth and moisture, I find it to be okinawa to be possibly the easiest, low-maintenance, perennial, leafy green vegetables to grow, in full sun or partial shade. It seems to be relatively pest-free, and so vigorous that what little pest damage it does suffer is inconsequential.
It grows well in containers, hanging baskets, or even on a windowsill so long as there is enough light.
If you’re using okinawa spinach as a food plant you’re probably cutting off most of the long flowering stalks to encourage more leaf production, but it’s worth keeping a few flowers just for their little flash of orange amongst the green and purple. I cut these flowers off before thinking that you might have wanted to see how they look…
Okinawa spinach is easy to propagate with cuttings rooted in water or just laid into moist soil. Remove most of the leaves, leaving just a few small healthy ones, then bury the stem with the leaves poking out. Keep moist.
(Removing most of the leaves reduces stress on the cutting by reducing transpiration—moisture loss—from the leaves.)
The easiest way to propagate okinawa spinach is as you see in the image above: harvest some long runners from an established patch. Cut off the tips and put them in a basket for the kitchen, remove most of the leaves from some of the runners that already have roots, and replant them somewhere else.
Okinawa spinach has a long history of use in East and Southeast Asia as a vegetable and as a medicinal herb.
It’s said to help lower cholesterol, hence one of its common names, “cholesterol spinach”.
(My husband’s comment when he heard that was that all the tropical “spinach’s” would lower cholesterol since they all use up more calories to chew and swallow, than they give. But he was being uncharitable, and in the case of okinawa spinach, entirely inaccurate. It’s not at all hard to chew.)
Various internet references (see refs at the bottom of this article) describe okinawa as being rich in protein, iron, potassium, calcium, and vitamin A.
A scientific review of its compounds found it to be anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, supportive of healthy blood sugar balance, supportive of liver health, and may support the skin in defending itself from sun damage. (I changed some of the wording from the review from scientific babble into plain english.)
How To Eat It
The green, young stems can be chopped as a vegetable and used where-ever you’d use tender green veggies. I like them in stir fries.
The older leaves can be added to anything you’d use leafy greens in, but be sure to add them just before serving; overcooking makes them lose their wonderful color and they go a bit slimy.
In the image below, I’ve dumped a handful of okinawa leaves on top of some pre-cooked rice that I’m re-heating in a steamer. (Yes, you are right: I’m not a very imaginative cook. And I’m usually in a hurry.)
Don’t cook okinawa leaves for any length of time. They’re ready to serve in the time it takes to get them from the stove top to the table.
But do cook it if you’re not putting salad dressing on it; here’s why.
The flavor is unique, although not at all overpowering. It’s described in other articles as being a “crisp, nutty taste with a faint hint of pine.” I have no idea what pine tastes like, but I agree about “crisp and nutty” – so long as you haven’t over-cooked it. (Did I mention that often enough?)
I think it would go well with a salad dressing that had sesame oil in it, but since no-one in my family will come near sesame oil even when armed with a forked stick, you’ll have to try that yourself.
There are lots of lovely pictures (much better than mine) of okinawa spinach, here. Green Harvest have a page all about okinawa spinach, here. And Morag Gamble at OurPermacultureLife.com describes how she grows and uses okinawa spinach here.