The Curious Case of the Chaya
by Norma Kisida, Master Gardener Volunteer 2012
Not long ago, I went with a group of Manatee County Master Gardener Volunteers for a tour of ECHO (Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization) located in Fort Myers. ECHO (http://echonet.org/) is an organization that develops and delivers solutions to hunger problems around the world. They introduced us to new methods of food production and several new food crops used in developing countries. We observed an interesting plant called chaya (Cnidoscolus aconitifolius), also known as “tree spinach.”
Chaya is a large leafy shrub popular in Mexico and Central America. It is an extremely nutritious plant with leaves and small stems that are rich in protein, vitamins, calcium and iron. It grows very quickly once established and you can harvest up to 60 percent of the leaves at one time after it is well established.
You will need to cook the chaya to inactivate a toxic substance (hydrocyanic glycosides) present in the plant. Leaves and small stems should be boiled for at least 5 minutes but some sources recommend as much as 15-30 minutes.
Plants in the chayamansa group (Cnidoscolus Chayamansa) are most often cultivated for food as this group lacks the stinging (toxic) hairs found in other cultivars. Chaya is also an attractive landscape shrub/tree that can quickly supply shade and frequent small white blooms attractive to butterflies and hummingbirds.
Light – full sun, part shade
Water – tolerant of heavy rain and some drought tolerance
Soil – most soil but may dislike acid
Zone – 9-11, cold sensitive but will likely recover
Pest Problems – none
Growth – Slow until established then fast, large shrub up to 20 feet.
Propagation – stem cuttings
Caution – must be cooked to be edible, white sticky sap that can irritate the skin, wild varieties with stinging hairs
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