Chaya: The Spinach Tree

by Green Deane

in Greens/Pot Herb,Plants,Trees/Shrubs

Chaya leaves are edible after cooking. Photo by Green Deane.

 Cnidoscolus aconitifolius: Tree Pot Herb

I knew about Chaya long before I ever saw one.

It’s in the Cnidoscolus genus and has two relatives in the southern United States, the Cnidoscolus stimulosus and the Cnidoscolus texanus. In researching and writing about those I learned about the Chaya. The problem with the two American plants is the C. stimulosus has an edible root and the C. texanus has edible seeds, but one never finds good evidence for the reverse. Are the seeds of the C. stimulosus edible? Are the roots of the C. texanus edible? There is also the possibility that the leaves of the C. stimulosus are edible. I know of two people who ate some raw (blended it) and did not get ill. Another person used to fry the leaves and eat them. This might suggest said for the C. texanus as well.

Those are four issues that need to be sorted out with the North America family members, but there is no edibility issue with Chaya. Its leaves are edible cooked.  In fact, it’s an outstanding green generally twice as nutritious as spinach, Chinese cabbage or amaranth. The leaves are very high in protein, calcium, iron, carotene, and vitamins A, B and C. In fact, Chaya can have 10 times as much vitamin C as the orange.  There is no doubt about its nutrition, there is a bit of an issue, however, with how many Chaya there are. Whether there is one species of Chaya with several scientific names or several different species of Chaya is a bit of a debate.

Chaya in blossom

A study as late as 1999 researchers recognized two species, Cnidoscolus chayamansa and Cnidoscolus aconitifolius.  At the time the C. chayamansa had maple-like leaves (now called the chayamansa variety) and the C. aconitifolius had more indented five-lobed leaves (now called the Estrella variety.) Those two botanical names are still used, with some authorities saying they are two different species, and some– the latest view since 2002 — saying they are the same plant, just different varieties. You will also see Cnidoscolus aconitifolius ssp. aconitifolius, and Cnidoscolus aconitifolius ssp. chayamansa, and the reverse combinations. Botanists tend to defend their taxonomic turf while confusing the issue significantly.

As for varieties, some have stinging hairs like their American cousins, some don’t. So not only can you have multiple confusing names you can have edible Chaya with stinging hairs and without, and different shaped leaves. Often this is whether the variety is in the wild (Chaya brava) or under cultivation (Chaya mansa.) Regardless, all should be boiled or fried though there are some reports that some of the varieties can be eaten raw. I would be careful about that since cooking drives off hydrogen cyanide. You need to cook them ten to 20 minutes though some say five minutes will do. (The resulting broth is also often consumed because the hydrogen cyanide has been driven off and the water is full of Vitamin C leached from the leaves.)  The raw eaves can also be used to wrap food for cooking.

Drying the leaves also reduces the hydrogen cyanide significantly. Blending will do the same IF the blended leaves are allowed to sit for several hours. The amount of hydrogen cyanide differs from variety to variety and may account for reports of some variety leaves being eaten raw.  Researchers say they have found no reports  of acute or chronic effects attributed to the consumption of fresh or cooked Chaya leaves. Still, it is better to err on the safe side.

While edibility is not an issue, finding Chaya may be. It’s native to Central America and endemic to the Yucatan Peninsula. The USDA maps show it naturalized only in Puerto Rico and Hawaii. It does grow in Florida and South Texas but is ill- suited to freezes though it does grow back from the root. One local specimen in downtown Orlando and has been there at least 20 years, surviving several light freezes.

As for the scientific names, again opinions differ. Since the name is from Greek first a little lesson in Greek. Greek verbs have a main part, the stem, and an ending. The verb stem “to sting”  is “tsou.”  To that is added endings telling you who or what is stinging. Tsouzo (TSOU-zoh) means I sting, tsouzee, means he, she, it stings. The word for nettles is tsouknitha (tsouk-NEE-tha) combining tsou with knitha, which might mean “it stings a little.”

So the genus name Cnidoscolus is from two Greek sources pulverized through Latin. Cnido is cleaved from tsouknitha (k-NEE-tha)  The Romans got rid of Greek “K” sounds and used C in front of the N to indicate it was from Greek and the C silent in Latin. Scolus is from the Greek word “skolop” meaning “a thorn” but with a Latin ending.

How that all is pronounced is a bit of preference. kah-knee-doe-SKOHL-us is close to the original Greek, if you don’t mind cutting a word in half and adding a Latin ending.  Anglicized Latin truly bastardizes the Greek, drops a syllable, changes the accent and pronunciation ending up with nye-DOSE-ko-lus. I have also heard sss-need-doe-SKOHL-us which offends both languages. There is no beginning SN sound in native Greek or Latin.

Chayamansa (chay-uh-MANZ-uh) a combination of the Mayan word for the plant, “chaay” and the Latin mansa meaning house, dwelling or farm, read Chaya a domesticated plant.  It is also said chay-uh-MAN-suh. Aconitifolius (a-kon-eye-tih-FOH-lee-us) means Aconitum-like leaves. Chaya is said CHA-yah.

Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant

IDENTIFICATION: Shrub to a small tree, three to 12 feet high, stems leafy, with or without stinging hairs and or thorns. Leaves alternate, stalks two inches to a foot long, three to five lobes, two smaller lobes at base, leaf edges deeply, sharply lobed and toothed, veins palmate. Flowers white, in branched clusters, spring through fall. Fruit three-part capsule with stinging hairs. Sap milky. Rarely seeds.

TIME OF YEAR: Leaves and shoots year round. The best leaves are small to half mature size. Up to 50% of the leaves can be harvested at one time.

ENVIRONMENT: Will tolerate a wide range of environments from wet to arid, shady to sunny.

METHOD OF PREPARATION: Chopped leaves, stem tips and shoots boiled or fried. Cooking for 20 minutes destroys hydrogen cyanide in the tissue. Cooking broth is drinkable.  Leaves can be blended and consumed after letting them sit for several hours. Large leaves can be used to wrap food for cooking. The entire plant can be dried, ground, and used as fodder for animals or meal for fish.

Do not cook Chaya in aluminum containers. It can cause a toxic reaction. When collecting stinging varieties wear gloves. Avoid breathing in the vapors when cooking. Stir frying is not enough to render the Chaya edible. Cook it first then add to stir fries.

If you would like to donate to Eat The Weeds please click here.

{ 43 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Colleen Wiggins October 23, 2011 at 21:09

We have heard it is edible but never have tried it. We only know that

it is easy to grow & butterflies love the flowers. We have two kinds.

One with stinging leaves. Thanks for the info. We have aregular

forest of it.

Reply

2 Des January 2, 2012 at 16:33

I consider Chaya to be an amazing plant which is certainly under used. It grows, here in Zimbabwe, so easily and prolificaly. It withstands our weather challenges magnificently.
If properly promoted it will surely become a popular vegetable to overcome anaemia and many other health problems that are caused by poor/unbalanced nutrition.
We are bulking up planting material for free distribution with the agreement that each recipient will pass on an equal amount received to someone else.
Any advice and ideas will be welcome. The same applies to Chia – Salvia hispanica, which seems to be a gift from nature. The only real draw-back might be the seed eating birds.
Des

Reply

3 Elna May 12, 2014 at 09:55

Hi, any possibility to obtain cuttings from you? I’m in SA

Reply

4 Cilliers de Kock September 1, 2014 at 12:43

Good day
Did you manage to get cuttings? I am also in SA, Pretoria.
Thank you.
Cilliers

Reply

5 aaron January 11, 2012 at 15:25

was wondering if anyone knows why or how come my spinch trees leaves are turning yellow .. pleze help me out ..

Reply

6 Green Deane January 11, 2012 at 15:33

The causes of yellowing are 1) normal aging, 2) overwatering 3) cold drafts 4) lack of light, 5) viral infections 6) nutrient deficiency, lack of nitrogen or too much calcium.

Reply

7 Marcy July 20, 2013 at 19:25

I received my cuttings in the mail. when i opened the package of course the plant and roots were hot due to the heat. the leaves started turning yellow. i put a little water around the edges of the pot as not to overwater and i also put outside which seemed to me to make it worse. it may not have but this is not a plant i want to lose. i also have other plants such as moringa and thinking of keeping it inside until next spring and see how it does from there. thanks :) ~~ Marcy

Reply

8 zara March 26, 2012 at 15:02

I started chaya in my compost from 3-4″ twigs that a friend gave to me. They are now 4′ & blooming. I have only partial direct sun, probably less than 4 hrs, lots of mottled sun, but just like everything else in my micro-climate, all defies book-knowledge being planted in deep compost & mulched richly w/ hay, rabbit & chicken manure. I have yet to harvest them, as I wanted a 1st run season before harvest. How much can I harvest & not distrupt the growth?

Reply

9 Green Deane March 26, 2012 at 16:32

In an established tree, if I remember correctly, it is half the foliage. But I would start out much less than that.

Reply

10 Jimmie L. April 17, 2012 at 05:17

I live in kansas City, Mo. I just recently learned about the Chaya herb plant. I was extremely fascinated about the claims that I read about it. Iwould like to try my hand at growing some plants but, I would need to know the best, and closes place I could purchase them.I would also need instructions on how to plant and take care of them.Any information that you could supply me with, will be greatly appreicated. ………J>L>

Reply

11 Pako September 25, 2012 at 23:26

This article contains a few sources in the USA where Chaya can be ordered.
http://www.mexconnect.com/articles/982-chaya-the-maya-miracle-plant

Reply

12 Survival Gardener/David The Good May 19, 2014 at 23:58

I carry it in my nursery.

Great write-up, Green Deane. We just harvested a big crop of leaves today. I think they’re better than collards. A nice, full flavor and texture.

Reply

13 keo August 12, 2012 at 08:10

Green, can the flowers of this tree be eaten or made into tea?

Reply

14 Green Deane August 13, 2012 at 09:15

I have not heard of that but I would think as long as they have been processed they could be. They do have a bit of cyanide in them which is why I recommend caution.

Reply

15 Sylvia September 4, 2013 at 15:35

I’ve been using only the leaves in tea, or blended with ice and lemon juice and cooked with salmon as well as other seafood for a few years now and love it.
Indigenous people in Mexico claim it has many medicinal uses as well and have used it for centuries.

Reply

16 Alder Burns September 30, 2012 at 01:34

One of the beauties of this plant, and a few others like it (cassava and nettle come first to mind) is that it is toxic and/or irritant when raw, and harmless when cooked. Thus in crowded and unfenced subsistence systems, these plants can coexist with livestock such as goats and not be eaten up, while still providing vegetables for people.

Reply

17 N.C.U December 6, 2012 at 18:53

is there any plant that resembles the chaya that i should be aware of? anything close that you know of?

Reply

18 Green Deane December 7, 2012 at 08:17

Yes, Cnidoscolus stimulosus.

Reply

19 lourdes March 11, 2013 at 16:58

My husband uses it for his diabetes and really has helped with keeping his blood sugars normal. A friend of his gave him a small stalk and now has several trees. Grows beautifully in Florida! !

Reply

20 RALP May 13, 2013 at 10:01

GOOD MORNING LOURDES,

MY FATHER IS DIABETIC. CAN YOU PLEASE TELL ME HOW YOU PREPARE THE CHAYA. DO YOU BOIL IT FOR HOT TEA OR DO YOU BLEND IT FOR A JUICE OR SMOOTHIE.
HOW LONG HAS YOUR HUSBAND BEEN TAKING IT. WE LIVE IN CALIFORNIA.
THANKS, RALPH

Reply

21 Dainty March 20, 2013 at 04:15

Lourdes,

I am interested in knowing how your husband uses it for his diabetes, a friend recently gave me a stem which has started to grow. My mom has diabetes, I’d love to be able to have her use it when the tree matures.
I am also in Florida.

Reply

22 Amy K September 21, 2013 at 16:46

Chaya recipes are truly recommended for those that have diabetes, obesity and kidney stone ailments and can be found in Texas and Florida where its popularity has gained it a place in the food produce choices of markets. We hope you enjoy this rich velvety recipe, serves four people, best made with organic fresh chaya leaves:
Ingredients:
20 tender Chaya leaves washed.
2 cups of organic whole milk
4 fresh leaves of basil
1 crushed garlic clove
1 small onion diced
1 cup of vegetable bouillon
pepper and salt to your taste.

Final Touch: 2 spoons of unsweetened cream
NOTE: You may use fresh organic spinach leaves and follow this delicious recipe.

How to Prepare: Place chaya leaves, chopped onions and crushed garlic in a pot with the vegetable bouillon and cook for ten minutes or until leaves are blanched (use mid-heat); add milk and let it cool. In a blender mix to a smooth velvety texture the remaining ingredients, return mix to pot and cook another five to ten minutes or until mixture gets really hot but does not boil. Serve hot. Add the final touch by placing the unsweetened cream in a small bag; cutting the bag’s bottom tip, you can create a lovely design atop your served soup bowls. For a zesty taste, sprinkle a bit of crush dried red chili as well.

The leaves are pretty bland, so you can add them to soups, casseroles, spaghetti sauces, salsas and salads without affecting the taste. The tiny, tender ones can go in omelets or salads or be used as garnish. The larger ones are best chopped and cooked long and slow. I’ve tried cooking them quickly, like spinach, and have not been happy with the leathery results.

For a liter of tea, use 3-5 medium size leaves with whatever blend you favor. I like two bags of black tea with two bags of mint and the chaya leaves, “cooked” in a glass bottle in the sun for a couple of hours and then refrigerated. Soak the leaves in water with a disinfectant such as Microdyn, before using, as you do fruits and vegetables.

Warning: In cooking or serving, Do not use aluminum containers, as a toxic reaction can result, causing diarrhea.

Use pottery or glass.

Reply

23 Bob Loggah April 2, 2013 at 14:17

Chaya is a beautiful plant. I was given six pieces twigs by post from the USA to Wa in Ghana West Africa many years ago and they are doing well , but my goats when given the chance eat them raw.
I sometimes dry the leaves , grind them and add to livestock (goats, sheep, poltry and pigs ) meal. I am happy to read that such dry stuff can be fed to fish. Iwill try this soonest. Thanks and God bless !.

Reply

24 Brett Stebbins April 22, 2013 at 12:28

I live in Florida and have a Chaya tree I just planted in my backyard. I also have some egg laying ducks that roam my backyard as well. I recently saw my ducks eating leaves from the Chaya tree. Because of the Cyanide will this hurt my ducks and is it safe for us to consume the eggs of the ducks after they have eaten from the Chaya tree?

Reply

25 Green Deane April 26, 2013 at 15:45

Birds can eat things we can’t. It shouldn’t be a problem.

Reply

26 Carolalayne May 3, 2013 at 11:23

First of all, thanks for this great info. I just received cuttings from a friend, and I can’t believe I never knew about this plant before — especially since the butterflies seem to love the flowers. (I raise butterflies in cages to protect them from predators.)

I also vermicompost, and I wonder whether my worms could safely eat the freshly stripped leaves. Or should I cook them first? Any ideas?

Reply

27 Joyce E Forager May 28, 2013 at 11:09

Can dried or cooked Chaya leaves be added to dog food?

Reply

28 Cathy June 5, 2013 at 07:11

We grow chaya quite easily in western Kenya. In fact, I started with five small stems in early 2011 and have given out hundreds of chaya to people in our village and other areas. I will be conducting a seminar for widows next week about chaya since it is so easy to grow, available year round, a great source of vitamins, and literally free food! We consider it the miracle plant and love it share it here in a culture that likes to eat green leafy veggies as part of their daily meal.

Reply

29 Sofia June 12, 2013 at 13:54

Can anyone advise how this edible plant has worked for them. Is it because the Mayans live a long, long life?

Reply

30 Robbyn July 29, 2013 at 16:27

My husband and I grow these, both the stinging and the non-stinging types. We have found the stinging type (for us) to be the hardier of the two, though both are very hardy compared to most plants. They grow in rainy seasons or drought and simply love the heat! To transplant, we simply cut a stem and stick it into a hole dug into the ground elsewhere and re-filled with the same soil crumbled up and put right back into the hole and then pressed lightly with the heel of our shoes. In a very dry season the cuttings might need a little water now and then for a couple weeks until established, but most of the time ours have not. This is a hardy plant that thrives on neglect :-) The non-flashy flowers attract butterflies a lot, especially Gulf fritillaries that dance all around the plants all summer long. They are so easy to propagate that we take buckets of stem cuttings out to our new farm and have planted them all along the roadway. We don’t mind the stinging kind…we simply wear long sleeves or gloves when handling and cutting the leaves and cutting them up. They cook up well as a boiled green that can be eaten just as greens or drained and sliced into thin strips to add to recipes just as spinach is. We have not tried drinking the boiling water as tea…now we will! We have a lot more experimenting to do with them as edibles. Frankly, they’ve been so easy and unobtrusive sometimes we just take them for granted and forget to eat them :) The shape is very pleasant in the landscape, especially for wild plantings we prefer..they mingle well and elegantly and then die back in the winter, always arising again from the roots (the stinging kind moreso) once the weather gets sufficiently hot. We consider the stinging kind an asset for areas where a hot weather hedge is possible but discouraging intruders. They have no thorns…the sting is more like the rash you’d get from stinging nettles, another heroic nutritional plant we hope to grow one day :)

Reply

31 Karen September 6, 2013 at 08:11

Does making a tincture of the leaves in alcohol or vinegar get rid of the hydrogen cyanide?

Reply

32 Green Deane September 6, 2013 at 10:41

I don’t know as I am not an herbalist. Why would one want to make a tincture out of this species?

Reply

33 Karen September 7, 2013 at 21:09
34 Nsimundele Léopold March 4, 2014 at 04:20

The plant is a new introduction in Democratic republic of Congo,used as ornamental plant in Kinshasa capital of the country and in Matadi,capital of Bas Congo province.

Reply

35 Tara March 27, 2014 at 11:10

I have this tree. Never ate the leaves yet, have been afraid to do so. I will say this tree is one of my favorites and is so beautiful. The butterflies, birds and honey bees love it. It blooms most of the year, so you’ll always have butterflies….many species too! Not to mention give good amount of food to the honey bees that are struggling to survive now a days. I recommend getting one! Oh, by the way, I live in central Florida on the gulf. Grows great here.

Reply

36 Brett Stebbins April 17, 2014 at 13:36

I absolutely love eating Chaya. We have a fairly large tree/shrub in our backyard, transplanted from a small branch we received from someone. I boil it for 20mins then put it in an iron skillet with bacon grease, garlic and salt. It tastes great and all my kids eat it too. We have been eating over the past year, after I read this article and did some more research to make sure. The freeze did kill all the leaves but now it has tons of deep green leaves. I just ate a plate of it today for lunch!

Reply

37 Don May 13, 2014 at 18:31

I know this is an old post on chaya, but it is still relevant. For anyone in S Florida looking for certain plants like chaya, moringa and others, check with ECHO in Fort Myers. It is a non-profit recognized for their work with addressing world hunger. They have a demonstration farm in Fort Myers, Florida and provide a wealth of information on plants and seeds. Oh, yeah! They offer many of these plants for sale and you can tour the demonstration farm and see all of the amazing plants.

Best!

Reply

38 Rane August 25, 2014 at 15:35

Don, yes it certainly is still relevant. Thanks for the info. I live in Collier County and will definitely check it out! :)

Reply

39 Barb June 19, 2014 at 12:07

I moved down to the Yucatan for about a year and when I found out the age of this one man, who was forty with a wife and two children, I asked him what was his secret for looking like he was maybe twenty. He quickly replied the Chaya Tree. He said they all referred to it like the fountain of youth, only from a tree. Where I was located was surrounded by forest and I think it must grow wild there. He did not show me the tree but brought me a dish to eat which his mother had prepared. Even after cooking it down, it was still bright green. I “think” she added fresh garlic to it as well. It was better than any dark green leafy vegetable I have ever eaten and I love spinach. It does not have any similar taste to collard greens or turnip Greeks, or even spinach. Very mild and very good. He was quite protective of the trees as he did not show me where they were located.

It is wonderful to eat. As to whether it retains a youthful appearance to those who eat it regularly in their diet, I do not know. I do know he did not look anywhere near his age though. And after researching all the nutrients in it, I would think it certainly would not age a person.

Great food and that is all I ate fr my dinner, one big plate of Chaya.

Reply

40 Dennis June 28, 2014 at 12:38

Green,

I want to harvest it and freeze the juice from the plant. Can I juice the leaves FIRST and then cook the juice to destroy the posion, and then use it as a green drink???

Thanks

Reply

41 Green Deane July 7, 2014 at 15:41

There’s a bit of a problem with juicing first. Cook the leaves, drain, then blend the leaves but not any of the cooking juice.

Reply

42 agueda August 19, 2014 at 12:31

where in texas can I get some chaya plants

Reply

43 Green Deane August 19, 2014 at 17:41

Google Foraging Texas. He might know.

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: