If you’re looking for a novelty vegetable that’s attractive, easy to grow, and nutritious, you need Okinawa spinach in your garden. A perennial “spinach”, this leafy green grows with little to no maintenance in the right climates. It’s the perfect addition to your perennial garden or permaculture food forest.
Okinawa spinach is a great way to foil controlling homeowners associations and city ordinances that keep you from growing edible plants in your front yard. It’s pretty, exotic, and no one will ever guess that it’s an edible unless you tell them!
If you don’t have a yard, no problem. Okinawa spinach grows well as a container plant. It can even be grown indoors in a sunny windowsill or under a grow light.
If you live somewhere that freezes each winter, you can grow Okinawa Spinach in containers outside during the summer and bring your plants inside during cold spells. You can also take cuttings to propagate and bring your “baby” plant indoors for the winter.
Here’s what you need to know about how to plant and grow Okinawa spinach, including care and harvesting tips.
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What Is Okinawa Spinach?
The name “Okinawa spinach” is something of a misnomer because it’s not a true spinach at all.
True spinaches belong to the plant genus Spinacia and the plant family Amaranthaceae. Okinawa spinach, on the other hand, belongs to the plant genus Gynura (full botanical name is G. bicolor synonym crepioides) and the plant family Asteraceae, the daisy family. (source)
However, with dark green, edible leaves, it’s easy to see where the common name “spinach” came from. You may also find it going by other names like “hong tsoi” and “Okinawa lettuce”. It’s definitely a lot closer to a spinach than a lettuce, though, which is why I use “Okinawa spinach” in this article. The leaves are thick and succulent, like a spinach leaf.
Native to regions of China, Thailand, and Myanmar, Okinawa spinach is grown widely in many Southeastern Asian countries and is a unique vegetable for several reasons.
Although the leaves are deep green on top, the undersides are a rich purple, which gives the plants a very ornamental appearance.
Also, Okinawa spinach is a perennial plant, whereas true spinach varieties are short-lived annuals. In tropical and subtropical areas, it can be grown in the ground year round, but in regions that get frost, it needs to be grown in a container and brought indoors during winter.
A freeze will kill the aboveground growth, but light freezes don’t usually kill the roots. If your potted Okinawa spinach was caught in a light freeze, go ahead and bring the container inside because your plant will probably recover.
As for growth habit, plants get about 1-2’ tall and form a groundcover if allowed to spread together. The plants are not vining and do not spread by means of runners, unlike many other groundcover plants.
How to Start Okinawa Spinach
Perhaps the hardest part of how to plant and grow Okinawa spinach is finding a plant. Unlike many other greens, it isn’t started from seed, so you’ll either need to find someone who has a patch and take cuttings or find somewhere to buy a potted plant.
Etsy is a great place to look for Okinawa spinach – I ordered mine online and it arrived healthy and vigorous. People sell both potted, rooted Okinawa spinach and Okinawa spinach cuttings you need to root yourself. Make sure you read the listing carefully and purchase what you want so there are no surprises when your package comes.
Okinawa spinach is more popular in tropical and subtropical countries (particularly Australia). If you live in one of these areas, it may be easier to find.
If you know someone who grows it, ask if you can take a few cuttings from their plant. If the answer is yes, snip off 3-4” leafy stems (no flowers) and remove the bottom ⅓-½ of the leaves. Stick the cut end of the stems in a moist, sterile growing medium (or water) and let them root.
The cuttings usually root easily and can be potted up in a few weeks. You can either continue to grow the plants in pots or transplant them to your garden in warm weather.
How to Plant and Grow Okinawa Spinach
When to Plant Okinawa Spinach
If you live somewhere that is warm year-round, Okinawa spinach can be planted anytime, although it’s best to plant when it will get plenty of water from nature (spring for most gardeners).
If you live somewhere with cold winters, wait until after all danger of frost has passed in the spring and the soil has warmed considerably before planting outside.
Remember, Okinawa spinach does best in tropical and subtropical climates, so you should only try planting it when the weather is consistently warm and trending upwards.
Gardeners who have cold, wet summers may struggle to grow Okinawa spinach at all. However, some have success growing it as a houseplant or in a greenhouse – as long as it gets plenty of sunlight or you use a grow light. A small, inexpensive clip on grow light can give the added boost your indoor Okinawa spinach needs to thrive. Just a couple of plants can provide you with fresh greens all year long!
Where to Plant Okinawa Spinach+ Growing Conditions
Okinawa spinach thrives in warm, wet conditions, but it doesn’t like soggy soil, so plant it in a well-drained spot.
This perennial “spinach” is also not very picky about soil (as long as it drains well) and will grow in clay, silt, and sand. Some people say it prefers richer soil, others say it’s not a heavy feeder. If you have access to high quality compost, add some to the soil before planting in the ground. If you’re planting Okinawa spinach in containers, it will be find with your usual potting soil.
If you don’t have mild weather year-round, it’s a good idea to plant Okinawa in a container that can be taken inside during cold weather. It grows very well in pots and hanging baskets.
Space plants about 1-2’ apart if growing in the garden. They will eventually form a groundcover if you let them but can also be trimmed or pruned to stay as separate plants.
To maximize space in a vegetable garden, you can plant Okinawa spinach underneath taller vegetables like mature kale or perennial kale. Although some people recommend planting it with tomatoes, I personally find that virtually nothing grows well under tomatoes because they’re so vigorous and have aggressive roots. It can also be planted around fruit trees or berry bushes and will act as a “living mulch” to keep weeds down. Okinawa is a great addition to a perennial garden or food forest.
As always, be sure to water your seedlings in well after planting. This helps mitigate transplant shock. I typically water seeds and seedlings with a watering wand. The water is more gentle and less likely to damage young plants and their delicate root systems. Discover the best watering wands in this guide to selecting a garden wand for your needs.
The image below does not show Okinawa spinach, but it does show how easy a watering wand is to use. Even a young child can do it!
Okinawa Spinach Plant Care
Once your plants get established, they will be very easy to care for and will do well if mostly left alone.
However, one important thing to keep in mind is that Okinawa spinach is not strictly drought tolerant. It can survive periods without water but typically stops growing when this happens. So if you want plenty of leaves to harvest, you’ll need to provide your plants with consistent moisture.
You can put some mulch around your plants to help conserve water and keep weeds down. Plants in containers will need to be watered more frequently than those in the ground (sometimes 1-2 times a day in very hot weather) because they dry out more quickly. If you’re tired of watering frequently, try planting in a larger container or using an Earthbox with a built in watering system.
Eventually, Okinawa spinach will form a groundcover in tropical and subtropical climates, which has an added benefit of keeping more moisture in the soil, even without mulch.
Be sure to bring plants inside once the weather gets cold if you live in a region with frosts.
Common Pests and Problems
Okinawa spinach is rarely bothered by pests. Slugs, snails, and leaf-eaters like aphids may occasionally feed on the leaves, but the plants are vigorous and usually bounce back without a problem.
My Okinawa spinach caught a few aphids from nearby sweet potatoes when it was young. I blasted them off with a hose and things have been pretty much clear sailing ever since. Most of my sweet potato leaves (and zucchini and cucumber leaves…) have bug holes in them at the time of writing, but only a few Okinawa spinach leaves do.
The biggest problem for most gardeners is cold weather. If you don’t live in a tropical/subtropical area and are struggling to grow Okinawa spinach, it might be worth trying it as a houseplant rather than a garden plant. Mine was living under my panel grow light for about a month before it moved outside and thrived during that time.
How to Harvest Okinawa Spinach
Harvesting Okinawa spinach is easy, and the more you harvest, the more your plants will bush out and grow.
Smaller, newer leaves will be the most tender and tend to have the best flavor, but all of the leaves are edible.
Once your plants have had a few weeks to grow and started to bush out, you can harvest leaves by cutting off small sprigs right above a leaf node. Plants can take quite a bit of harvesting, but a general rule is to leave at least ⅓-½ of each plant intact at a time.
You can also harvest individual leaves. Unlike other plants (like mint and basil) that don’t typically form new leaves unless you pinch them at nodes, Okinawa spinach actually will form new leaves along the stem, even if you pick individual leaves instead of stems.
Like with other greens, the leaves of Okinawa spinach are best before the plant flowers. For this reason, you should snip off flower stalks when they appear to prolong your harvest period.
However, at some point, you might want to let the flowers bloom because they are a beautiful shade of orange!
Here’s a quick video showing how to harvest Okinawa spinach:
Eating Your Harvest
If you’ve never tried Okinawa spinach, its flavor is often described as nutty with hints of pine. In my experience, the very tiny leaves (an inch or less) do have a light pine taste, but its less noticeable in the larger leaves. Don’t worry – Okinawa spinach does not taste like chomping down on a pine needle, but it does have an intriguing light pine flavor.
I like it better than “real” spinach and it’s far easier to grow. (True spinach tends to bolt very quickly where I live. I’ve even had seedlings bolt before they produced any usable leaves.) If you’ve had trouble growing spinach before, give Okinawa spinach a try.
The leaves are usually crisp and best eaten raw or lightly cooked, since they can get slimy if overcooked. They really can’t take much cooking at all. Just add chopped leaves to a hot bowl of rice, stir, and they’ll be perfect by the time the rice hits the dinner table.
Here are some ways to try eating your harvest:
- Sandwich topper
- Lightly steamed
- Added to soup (at the very end)
- Fried in a batter
- Added to a stir-fry (at the end)
- On eggs
- Paired with Asian flavorings (soy, ginger, miso, etc.)
- In smoothies
I cook “pancakes” every morning with yogurt, oatmeal, egg whites, and greens. I usually use kale, but I also toss in lemon balm and Okinawa spinach a few times a week. I blend everything together in my Ninja, then pour it on a griddle. I haven’t noticed a slimy texture on mornings when I’ve added Okinawa spinach.
Other Uses for Okinawa Spinach
Though most often used as an edible plant, Okinawa spinach can also be grown as an ornamental plant. Its two-toned leaves and striking orange flowers give it a lot of appeal in the landscape. It’s also used in a medicinal herb. (If you have access to a Science Direct login through school or work, this research article about the nutrition and benefits of Okinawa spinach is a comprehensive resource if you want to know more.)
It works best as a groundcover or a border plant but can also be grown from hanging containers to spill over the sides. It’s non-vining, not invasive and, of course, has the bonus of being edible.
Now that you know how to plant and grow Okinawa spinach, you can use it in a way that best suits your gardening plan: ornamental, edible, or both!
Make sure to discover these additional growing guides for popular warm weather herbs and vegetables:
Natasha Garcia-Lopez is an avoid home-gardener and proud owner of 88 acres of land in rural West Virginia. She was a member of the Association for Living History Farms and Agricultural Museums for many years and is currently enrolled in the Oregon State University Master Gardner Short Course program so she can better assist you with your gardening questions.She holds a certificate in natural skincare from the School of Natural Skincare.