by David Goodman
Chances are you’ve never heard of chaya.
Heck, I hadn’t heard about it until just a few years ago – and I’m a plant geek.
Now that I have it, however, I’d never go without it again. This is a must-grow vegetable for anyone in USDA Zone 8 and south. Further north it’s probably still worth growing – I’d just keep it in a pot through the worst of the winter.
What is Chaya?
Chaya is a perennial leaf vegetable in the same family as cassava. It’s Latin name is Cnidoscolus chayamansa and it’s also known colloquially as Mexican tree spinach.
Like cassava, it’s somewhat toxic raw thanks to the fact that it contains cyanogenic glucosides.
(Say that three times fast! Cyanogenic glucosides! Cyanogenic glucosides! Cyanogenic glucosides! Hey, good work!)
All you need to know about that is that the plant needs cooking before you eat it.
For some reason people freak out about the fact that this plant is POISONOUS RAW!
I mean, do you eat raw chicken?
Raw kidney beans?
I hope not. This plant isn’t scary – it just needs cooking before you can eat it. Big deal.
Chaya is so easy to grow that I’ve seen it growing wild with no care.
Chaya is a shrub that’s usually around 7′ tall. Though some plants will set seed, it’s usually propagated by cuttings.
All you do is cut a piece of the thick, waxy stems, let it sit for a day or so until the sap dries out, then stick it where you want a new chaya plant. They don’t root super quickly, but they always root… then grow like crazy.
To get cuttings, ask around – or you can get them from my nursery at a pretty cheap price.
If you live where you get regular freezes in the winter but it isn’t too brutal, your chaya will freeze to the ground then return from the ground in spring and be taller than you by fall.
Chaya will grow in full sun to part shade. It’s leggier in the shade and much less productive so I recommend full sun.
Harvesting and Using Chaya
To harvest chaya, I just take a basket and a pair of scissors or pruners out to my chaya bushes and start snipping. The leaves are good even when they’re older. You can also cut very soft, young shoots and cook them as well.
Once you have your chaya leaves, pop them in a pot of water and boil them for 10-20 minutes. Don’t use aluminum cookware as it apparently reacts poorly with chaya for some reason. Of course, you shouldn’t use aluminum cookware anyhow since it’s been correlated with Alzheimer’s Disease (though I forget where I read that.)
As for the flavor, this is where chaya shines. It’s a richly flavored green, reminiscent of collards, but sweeter and less tough. Definitely somewhere in the “spinach” zone.
My wife likes to boil chaya greens, then ladle spicy curry sauce and meat over them along with a side of basmati rice. When we’re feeling like traditional Southerners, we’ll boil them and simply serve them with hot pepper vinegar.
After boiling, chaya has also made appearances in stir fries, lasagnas and in any dish where cooked spinach is required. Boiled greens have even stood in for pasta since we’re not wheat eaters.
Chaya rapidly regrows after harvesting. Pick away and there always seems to be more.
This fall we’ll be boiling and freezing bags of chaya greens before the frost takes our plants to the ground.
Nutrition of Chaya
Did I mention that chaya is REALLY good for you?
According to this paper published by Purdue University:
Chaya leaves were found to contain substantially greater amounts of nutrients than the spinach leaves. The chaya leaf is especially high in protein (5.7%), crude fiber (1.9%), calcium (199.4 mg/100 g), potassium (217.2 mg/100 g), iron (11.4 mg/100 g), vitamin C (164.7 mg/100 g), and carotene (0.085 mg/100 g). The levels of chaya leaf nutrients, in this study, agree with published reports (Martin and Ruberte 1978; Munsell et al. 1949; Booth et al. 1992) and are two to threefold greater than most edible leafy green vegetables. In terms of the average nutritive value, chaya leaves [14.9] is by far superior to other leafy green vegetables such as spinach [6.4], amaranth [11.3], Chinese cabbage [7.0], and lettuce [5.4] (Grubben 1978). While some edible leafy green vegetables are usually good sources of mineral macronutrients (Levander 1990), chaya leaf furnishes appreciable quantities of several of the essential mineral macronutrients necessary for human health maintenance.
Additionally, in the same paper, researchers also report discovering possible antidiabetic effects in chaya leaves:
Following the oral administration of chaya tea, the blood glucose levels of the diabetic rabbits were gradually lowered from a high of 118 (baseline at 0.0 h) to 87 six hours after administration. The blood glucose level of 87 is similar to blood glucose levels of normoglycemic rabbits on drinking water (Table 2). The blood glucose levels of non-diabetic control rabbits that were given chaya tea showed a slight increase (i.e. hyperglycemia) above the baseline 85 at 1 to 2 h after administration, but rapidly stabilized thereafter (Table 2). The reason for this transient hyperglycemia is unknown and needs to be investigated. The results obtained in this study suggest that in STZ-induced diabetic rabbits, aqueous leaf extracts of C. chayamansa may be effective for treatment of non-insulin dependent diabete mellitus (NIDDM) symptomatology. This is a first report on hypoglycemic effect of chaya plants. The present report is preliminary in nature and additional studies will be needed to properly characterize the antidiabetic potential of chaya in diabetic animals. Also further studies will be necessary to determine the effective dosage, mechanism of the hypoglycemic activity and the active hypoglycemic principle present in the leaves of C. chayamansa.
The funny thing is: chaya tastes healthy.
There’s something hearty and good about chaya greens that keeps me going back for seconds and thirds. My children even eat them without complaint.
If you live in a place where you can grow chaya… grow it. It’s perennial, pest-free, productive and good for you.
I have a hunch that once you give chaya a try, you’ll love this plant as much as I do.
About David Goodman
David Goodman is a naturalist and hard-core gardener who has grown his own food since 1984. At age five, he sprouted a bean in a Dixie cup of soil and caught the gardening bug. Soon after, his dad built an 8’ by 8’ plot for him and David hasn’t stopped growing since. David writes a regular column for Natural Awakenings magazine in North Central Florida, posts on the Mother Earth News blog, owns a nursery of hard-to-find tropical edibles and grows roughly 1.5 zillion plants on his one-acre homestead. In mid-2012, he launched www.floridasurvivalgardening.com as a place to share his ongoing experiments with tropical and temperate crops. He currently has over 20 intensive beds, multiple field plots, over 100 fruit trees, two food forest projects in different climates and a series of ongoing experiments in-progress – all of which bring him closer each day to complete food security. David is a Christian, an artist, a husband, a father of seven, a cigar-smoker and an unrepentant economics junkie. Visit his daily blog here: Florida Survival Gardening Follow him on Twitter here: http://twitter.com/DavidTheGood