With chaya and I it was love at first taste. I’m not usually a huge fan of cooked greens but there’s something about the hearty, somewhat sweet taste of boiled chaya greens that keeps me reloading my plate.
In my recent post on growing Chinese Water Chestnuts, I told you that I’d be back with a look at other good perennial vegetables for the home garden. Today we’ll look at chaya. The Latin name of chaya is Cnidoscolus chayamansa and it’s also known colloquially as Mexican Tree Spinach. Some varieties have stinging hairs (my cultivar does not), some have deeply lobed leaves, and others have broad leaves (like the main type I grow) that vaguely resemble maple.
A few years ago my permaculture-minded friend Craig Hepworth gave me a couple of cuttings and I popped them in the ground. I was interested but not all that excited about a new green vegetable (I like roots and fruits!). About six months later my chaya plants had grown to about 4′ tall and I figured they could spare some leaves for the table. Since chaya, like its cousin cassava, is slightly toxic raw, I fired up a pot full of water and threw in a fistful of freshly cut greens. I didn’t expect much when I pulled a limp mess of steaming greens from the pot and transferred them to my plate. But wow… they were good. Now I’d never go without at least a few chaya plants in my yard.
Some greens, like amaranth and Ethiopian kale, can handle some of the heat of summer: chaya thrives in it. Chaya’s problem comes in the winter. This plant originated in the tropics and simply can’t stand freezing. Since I live in North Florida, I worried about losing it in the cold the first year I grew it, particularly when the frosts came and I saw my plants wilt and the stems brown out. The next spring, though, they were back – and happier than ever. New growth popped up in April and rapidly grew. At this time of year I have plants that are about 6′ – and we’ve been harvesting leaves since June.
And that’s another thing – chaya produces greens like crazy. It’s considered to be one of the most productive leaf crops in cultivation. If you live further north than its natural range, chaya can be successfully grown in a pot and brought indoors as a house plant during freezing weather.
I’ve found these guys to be quite tolerant of a wide range of conditions and soil. I’ve grown them in shade and in sun; in poor soil and in rich. They’re not picky. I’ve also cut stems and had them continue to live and even bud while lying in my greenhouse unplanted for months. That’s my kind of plant.
The best place to find chaya is to ask around among your friends for cuttings. If that doesn’t work, you can buy chaya cuttings here or search the web. Prices and varieties vary from site to site and this isn’t really a plant that you’ll find in local nurseries, so thank God for the internet!
Something else that’s wonderful about chaya: the butterflies love the tiny white flowers it produces. We have a chaya bush off the side of our back porch and it’s constantly being visited by a procession of zebra longwings. I don’t know what they find so attractive, but they’re always there.
As a part of the landscaping, chaya is an attractive tropical-looking plant with an interesting growth habit that I think would fit into almost any garden plan. I grow kale, collards, turnips, beets and lettuce through the winter… but chaya gets us through the summer and early fall.
Try a taste sometime and I think you’ll fall in love just like I did.
For more daily gardening inspiration, plant profiles, rare edibles and homesteading, check out David’s website at www.floridasurvivalgardening.com.
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