Chaya - Chayamansa - Tree Spinach - An Old Crop With New Promise
By Cori MacNaughton
Chaya is native to the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, Belize and other parts of Central and South America, and was a staple food for the Mayan culture. Its' common names include chaya, chayamansa and tree spinach. Among the available varieties in cultivation, its' scientific names include Cnidoscolus chayamansa and Cnidoscolus aconitifolius. I have been growing chaya for a number of years, and my chaya plants are all clones from an original cutting obtained from a neighbor; I am not sure which variety of chaya I have, but it is very prolific and I am never lacking for dark green, leafy vegetables in the garden.
The leaves are commonly used as a spinach substitute, while the shoots or branch tips are said to be similar to asparagus. Chaya has a milder flavor than cooked spinach, and can therefore be added to a wide variety of foods without altering their flavor; I have added it to soups, sauces, omelets, quiches and vegetable casseroles, and there are even many people who add the blanched leaves to smoothies for added nutrition. Like cassava leaves, raw chaya can contain toxic compounds, and it is recommended that it be cooked before eating. As little as one minute of cooking will destroy most of the toxins. Some people do, however, add the raw baby leaves to salads, although it is not recommended. According to the neighbor from whom I obtained my cutting, however, her son's chaya plants are regularly trimmed by the neighborhood ducks, who eat all the leaves they can reach, and do so without any apparent ill effects.
Chaya will naturalize in south and central Florida and most likely elsewhere in the Sun Belt and, although it requires protection from the cold, it will resprout from the roots in case of a light freeze. In northern climates it takes well to large containers, and is a beautiful plant which can be brought inside for the winter, lending a tropical air. Unlike many tropical plants, chaya is largely resistant to pests, although it is wise to watch for pests as with any house plant. If you do grow it in a container, and set it out in the yard during the summer, place it in a saucer or restrict the roots, as otherwise it will send its roots aggressively into the ground; chaya is a very fast grower, and a large pot can become immovable rather quickly. Chaya is not invasive, however, does not sucker, and rarely sets viable seed. One or two large plants, once established, should provide the majority of dark green, leafy vegetables needed for an average family. A hedge could help feed a small neighborhood.
According to Wikipedia, "Chaya is easy to grow, very hardy, and suffers little insect damage. It is tolerant of heavy rain and has some drought tolerance. Propagation is normally by woody stem cuttings about 6-12 inches long, as seeds are produced only rarely. Early growth is slow as roots are slow to develop on the cuttings, so leaves shouldn't be harvested until the second year. Chaya leaves can be harvested continuously as long as no more than 50% of the leaves are removed from the plant. Enough leaves need to be left to guarantee healthy new plant growth... A USDA study in Puerto Rico reported that higher yields of greens could be obtained with chaya than any other vegetable they had studied."
In addition to being prolific and highly nutritious, chaya is used in Mexico for medicinal purposes to treat conditions as wide ranging as diabetes, obesity, kidney stones, varicose veins, eye problems and much more. It is much higher in protein and other nutrients than most other vegetable sources and is therefore a valuable addition to a vegetarian diet. The cooked leaves may also be dried and powdered for addition to a wide variety of foods, including breads. There is a popular tea in Mexico made from chaya leaves. Like stevia, anecdotal evidence suggests that chaya may help to regulate blood sugar, making it an excellent addition to the diets of both hypoglycemics and diabetics.
For additional information on chaya, visit the following websites:
In my garden in Largo, Florida, chaya has proven to be a very fast grower, resistant to most pests, and weathers a drought well, although it requires well-drained soil and will not do well with prolonged flooding. My chaya does fabulously well with heavy rains, even every day in the rainy season, but will falter and die if there is standing water for more than a few days. It is a member of the Euphorbia family, and is a true succulent, although the leaves are atypically large and tender for a succulent plant.
In the Tampa Bay area, chaya goes dormant around the end of November, resuming active growth around the end of May, actively flowering until it goes dormant again, and is a major attractor for butterflies and bees. My back yard almost always has both small and giant swallowtail butterflies when the chaya is in bloom, as well as numerous sulphur butterflies and black bumblebees. It retains its leaves throughout the winter, and will sustain moderate harvests, with little or no apparent harm. Another nice feature is that, in the late spring, our tiny local copper-colored tree frogs take cover during the hot days among the chaya leaves. I have four mature plants in the ground, each about two years old, and they are all getting to be around eight feet tall and eight to ten feet wide - too tall for me to comfortably harvest, but they can be easily cut back to restrain their rampant growth. The cuttings root easily in a good soilless medium, and I have given a number of chaya plants away, as well as donating them to worthy causes. A good friend rooted his chaya cuttings directly in his sandy garden soil and they are doing well.
Interestingly, having just gone through several weeks of unseasonably cold weather, including two nights of freezes, the new growth so far seems to be unaffected, although the chaya seems to be losing most of its older leaves. This is the first time our chaya has weathered a freeze without being covered (I was out of town at the time), but it seems to have come through it relatively unscathed, as far as the main plant stems are concerned. The next few days will determine whether there was any permanent damage and, if so, how severe.
Update: the tips of my chaya plants all died back, but returned even more vigorously when the warm weather returned. They grew so vigorously, in fact, that after several days of soaking rains - again when I was out of town - three of my four chaya overbalanced and lay on the ground, due to the enormous weight of all the leaves. You would never know from looking at them that they had ever been damaged in a freeze. We have raised one, and leaned it against concrete blocks, but I do not know yet how successful that will be in keeping the chaya from falling over again.
My sister, who is a master gardener in Texas, believes that chaya and similar plants could help to end world hunger as we know it. It is a wonderful addition to any vegetable or fruit garden, especially for those growing some of their food for food banks, soup kitchens, homeless shelters and/or other charities, as it is prolific and highly nutritious, requires a minimum of care, and harvesting the leaves and shoots spurs new growth. In climates subject to freezing, chaya could be harvested throughout the year if grown in a greenhouse, or if brought inside to winter indoors.
Best of all, chaya is an absolutely beautiful specimen plant, becoming a large shrub or small tree at maturity, with a naturally graceful shape. Mine are currently approaching ten to twelve feet tall, and show no signs of slowing down. I will be cutting them back fairly drastically in days to come.
Please contact the author for sources of cuttings. Grow it in good health!
This article was originally published on the author's blog. Check out the blog for additional photographs
Cori MacNaughton is an artist, musician, writer, photographer and organic gardener living in Largo, Florida, with her partner Marek, their Newfoundland-mix dog, two cats, three doves, and lots of blue tilapia and other fish.
Cori is interested in unusual plants and growing methods, including aquaponics, which combines aquaculture and hydroponics, creating an organic closed-loop system.
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Views expressed in the article are those of the author and are not necessarily the opinions of CaribbeanChoice, its staff or members.