Little known outside of Asia and under-rated in the rest of the world, Gynura procumbens is a delicious spinach-type plant that should be growing in every tropical garden. It can be grown in sub-tropical and warm temperate regions as well.
Gynura procumbens is commonly known in different countries as longevity spinach, longevity greens, long life plant, diabetes spinach, Mollucan spinach or Bai Bing Cao, Sabuñgai or Sambung Nyawa.
It is a member of the daisy family (Asteraceae) and originally came from the tropical regions of Africa’s west coast. Now it is widespread throughout Southeast Asia, southern China, India and Sri Lanka.
The plant forms a dense, sprawling mound, often wider than it is high. It may reach up to one metre high if unpicked and cover an area of several square metres. It takes root easily and often older stems will self-propagate, growing adventitious roots, that may be separated from the clump to start new plants.
Any semi-hard stems may be used as cuttings and they will take root within a few days and quickly make a productive plant. Tip cuttings under mist will also take root almost immediately and grow rapidly.
Gynura procumbens is evergreen and the leaves are lanceolate with a small tooth-like indentation along the margins. It grows best in dappled light and this situation gives the most succulent leaves, suitable for salads and fresh consumption.
Older leaves are slightly tougher and lend themselves to steaming, blanching or use in stir-fries. It is essential NOT to overcook the leaves or they will collapse into an unpalatable slimy mess. Cooking time should only be a couple of minutes in most cases.
As well as being a hardy and attractive plant in the garden, this perennial seems to be very resistant to most leaf attacking insects in most tropical regions.
It is a flavourful vegetable in its own right, but as a medicinal plant, this spinach substitute really shines.
Extensive scientific research has confirmed its impressive list of ethno-botanical uses. In Indonesia, China, and Malaysia, as well as India, Sri Lanka and Thailand, it is well known as a treatment for diabetes, both type 1 and type 2. Some references state that insulin dependence can be eliminated or, in extreme type 1 cases, cut in half, just by eating 6 to 8 raw leaves about half an hour before meals. Usually the leaves are chewed to a pulp then swallowed with a glass of water.
However, it is not just diabetes that can be controlled by this plant. It has a long history of being used against kidney disease, hypertension, cardio-thoracic problems, rashes and most diet-related illnesses.
It has also been used as a defence against cancer and the literature says it has given excellent results when used before chemotherapy or radiation treatments.
It is a proven antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti- viral supplement and is considered an effective treatment for failing reproductive activities.
The plant has an extensive history of use in traditional Chinese medicine and the name Bai Bing Caomeans “100 ailments” — a fitting referral to its many uses. Its Malay name, Sambung Nyawa, means “prolongation of life”.
Gynura procumbens will grow in almost any soil, although it does not like sour waterlogged conditions. A twice-yearly dressing of dolomite lime and 3 or 4 applications of pelletized chicken manure per year is all this amazing plant needs to thrive.
The top shoots are used, stem and all in Malaysia and Indonesia, but single leaves seem to be the usual method of use throughout its range. When washed and chilled and used as a salad vegetable, they add an interesting tang to the dish. As a green side dish, blanching in hot water or one or two minutes of steaming is sufficient. This is a vegetable that must not be overcooked.
This versatile, health-giving plant is a must for every keen gardener.
Images: © Dennis Hearne