Have you heard of the Chaya plant? Also known as tree spinach, this miracle green is native to Mexico and is grown for its edible and nutritious leaves. As a fast-growing tropical perennial, it can reach heights of 18 feet, but in gardens it is usually pruned to about 6 feet to make it easier to harvest the thick, green leaves. Flowers are small and white and can be either male or female. Only rarely do seed pods of 1″ in length emerge from the pollinated female flowers, and the seeds produced will not usually grow. Leaves must be cooked prior to eating and are an important source of nutrition for many cultures.
Seed: Cultivated varieties of Chaya tree spinach do not generally produce seeds.
VEGETATIVE: Propagated by taking stem cuttings 6–12″ long. Cuttings can be rooted in a sterile soilless media or aeroponic system.
Cutting Depth: 3–4″
Space Between Plants: 8–10′
Space Between Rows: 8–10′
Start Indoors: Anytime.
Start Outdoors: Tree spinach is cold sensitive, so it should be started at the onset of the warm season.
Grows best in warm, tropical climates and will not tolerate heavy frosts. Established plants may come back from well-protected roots after a freeze. It can also be grown in a container that can be brought indoors during winter.
Natural: Full sun to partial shade. Will tolerate shade, but growth will be slower.
Artificial: Will grow indoors in a sunny window. Provide additional lighting if needed.
Soil: Prefers well drained sandy, loamy, or clay soils with a high amount of organic matter. Not a pickly plant, it will survive in a wide range of soil types.
Soilless: Cuttings will root in soilless mixes.
Aeroponic: Cuttings will root in aeroponic systems.
Water: Requires low to moderate levels of water. Somewhat drought and flood tolerant.
Nutrients: Requires moderate to high levels of nutrients. Amend soil with compost before planting. Add a balanced organic fertilizer once per season.
Pruning: Prune trees back to a manageable height if you desire to make harvest easier. Do not remove more than 2/3 of the foliage at one time. Pruning will make plants grow back bushier.
Mulching: Use mulch to keep soil moist and protect the base of the plant from mild winter frosts in temperate climates.
Deficiency(s): A nitrogen deficiency may cause slow growth and yellowing of leaves. Calcium and potassium deficiency will cause reduced nutrition in leaves.
Companions: Will grow well with most other garden plants.
Harvest: Pick Chaya leaves from their stems when they are young and tender. Start from the bottom and work your way up. Don’t take more than half to two thirds of the foliage at a time. It is best to wait until the second year to harvest to give plants a fighting start. Wear gloves when harvesting to protect your skin from possible reactions to the white latex sap and leaf hairs.
Storage: Fresh leaves can be stored in the refrigerator for several days to one week.
Classification: As late as 1999 there were two species recognized, Cnidoscolus chayamansa and Cnidoscolus aconitifolius. The latest common view is that these are not different species but different varieties of the same species. Each is also sometimes classified as a subspecies of the other.
Other names: Chaya is also called tree spinach, chay col, kilkilchay, Mayan spinach, and caykeken.
Pollinators: The white flowers, although rare in most varieties, are extremely fragrant and lemony, making them attractive to pollinators.
Preserve: Leaves can be cooked and then dried in the sun or using a dehydrator. Grind the dried leaves into a powder and use in breads, smoothies, drinks, and sweets to provide a boost of nutrition.
Leaves can also be frozen or canned for later use. Use a pressure canner if canning.
Prepare: Chaya leaves are traditionally boiled in water for 5–20 minutes and served as a side dish. Older leaves will require more cooking. Try adding them into soups, casseroles, potato dishes, or sauces. The flavor is fairly mild. The water used for cooking can be consumed as a tea, with many of the same health benefits as the cooked leaves.
Nutritional: Leaves provide high amounts of vitamin(s) A, C, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, iron, and antioxidants. Also a good source of protein and beta carotene. They are considered to be the most nutritious leafy green vegetable grown on land.
Medicinal: Leaves has been used for treating or preventing diabetes, improving circulation, aiding digestion, increasing bone health, reducing inflammation, preventing anemia, and even improving memory.
Warnings: Raw leaves contain toxic cyanogenic glycosides which release cyanide. It need to be cooked before eating. Boil for at least 5 minutes to allow the toxic components to evaporate. Use non-aluminum cookware because aluminum can react and cause diarrhea.
The white sap that the stems emit, as well as the tiny hairs found on leaves, can cause skin irritation.
Substitute Chaya leaves for spinach in this Lentil Soup recipe.