Chaya (Cnidoscolus chayamansa) is native to Yucatan Peninsula, one of the toughest ecosystems in the world. Over the centuries, it has been a staple of the Mayan diet. It’s also called tree spinach or Mexican spinach but that’s like comparing spinach to iceberg lettuce. According to a USDA report, chaya contains nearly twice as many important nutrients as spinach, including calcium, protein and Vitamin C.
Chaya is easy to grow almost anywhere. While it comes from a hot and dry ecosystem, it also thrives in the hot humid summers of Florida and Texas. In areas where temperatures occasionally drop below freezing, it may lose its leaves in the cold or even die back to the ground, but it quickly returns from temperatures as low as 25 degrees. It thrives in full sun, and grows quickly enough in tropical areas that it can be used as a hedge.
In more northern climates, it can be grown outdoors during the summer and brought inside to spend the winter in a sunny window.
Like many tropical plants, chaya leaves contain hydrocyanic glycosides, a toxic compound easily destroyed by cooking. Even though some people eat raw chaya leaves, it is generally considered to be unwise. Fresh chaya can be substituted for spinach in many recipes or blanched leaves can be added to smoothies. It has a very bland taste and can be used in either sweet or savory recipes. The smallest leaves and the tips of the growing branches are the tastiest and least tough.
We sell two varieties of chaya: The hog chaya is closer to what you would be served in a Mexican restaurant and works well as a wrap, with natives rolling it like a tortilla. The Estrella variety has maple-shaped leaves that are more decorative. They’re also thicker and the tree grows faster if you’re planning to make smoothies or cook with it.
Our chaya plants do not have the stinging nettles found on some wild plants. The only pests that seem to bother them are an occasional caterpillar or spider mites in very hot dry weather. The caterpillars are only serious on very young plants. Spider mites can be treated with neem oil or cake, or direct a hard spray of water under the leaves daily to disrupt their lifecycles.