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.

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