Wouldn't you love to spruce up your landscape with a lovely white-flowered perennial that laughs at drought, summer rains, bugs and disease? What if it were also a butterfly magnet that rooted easily from cuttings and bounced back from frosts? Not to mention a fast-growing privacy hedge for yards and hot tubs, while providing one of the most nutritious leafy vegetables in the world?
Just what is this "not too good to be true" plant?
Chaya! Don't confuse it with "chia," the seeds of a salvia plant being promoted by Dr. Phil as the "new health food." Those seeds are also the source of those chia pets you see on TV commercials.
It's growing on folks
Chaya is a member of the Euphorbia family, known botanically as Cnidoscolus chayamansa. It is native to South America but is increasingly grown in subtropical and tropical regions of the world. The plant's tough nature and tender, tasty leaves endear it to millions of gardeners as one of the few perennial vegetables, hence its nickname of "tree spinach."
The wild form is bristly and high in bitter, bug-deterring cyanogenic glucosides, which can cause a tummy ache if eaten raw. These compounds are also present in almonds, and they give apple seeds their bitter taste if chewed. They're why cassava (the source of tapioca and yuca) should also be cooked. But over the centuries, humans have selected and propagated smooth-stemmed forms of chaya. These are low in these chemicals, which are destroyed by just three minutes of cooking. The texture is similar to that of collard greens, and the flavor like a firm spinach when cooked for 20 minutes in water with sea salt and a touch of coconut oil or butter.
Spinach has long been overrated nutritionally, and it contains the oxalic acid many of us avoid because it can leach calcium from our blood and bones, while contributing to kidney stones. But chaya contains no oxalic acid and is a powerhouse source of calcium, potassium, iron, phosphorus, niacin, thiamine, riboflavin and vitamins A and C. Few leafy vegetables offer anything more than a trace of protein, but chaya leaves are almost 6 percent protein. No wonder this long-lived plant is a fixture in countless rural South American yards as a year-round source of good food for families.
Indigenous peoples have long used chaya to treat kidney stones, acne, hemorrhoids, various eye problems and obesity, and there is some evidence that it combats diabetes.
Chaya's at home here
The edible form of chaya does not set seeds, so it can't become invasive in Florida. Foot-long cuttings stuck into slightly damp soil in a pot in the shade root in four to six weeks. Once they begin to grow, plant them in your sunniest areas, though they can take light shade without getting too lanky. (They can grow to 8 feet if they are never pruned.)
To make a very fast-growing privacy hedge, space them 3 feet apart. Look for chaya at plant sales and butterfly garden club meetings, or get cuttings from a friend.
Chaya deserves to be widely known, available, grown and eaten, as all of us seek to beautify our yards, eat more healthfully and ease the strain on our budgets.
John A. Starnes Jr., born in Key West, is an avid organic gardener and rosarian who studies, collects, cultivates and hybridizes roses for Florida. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.