Most of us are very familiar with plain old regular spinach, but have you ever heard of the chaya plant or tree spinach? This type of spinach is native to the tropics and the Pacific region, specifically Cuba, Hawaii, and now Florida as well. Growing as a shrub or a tree, the chaya plant is a leafy vegetable that grows into a shrub to about 6-8 feet and resembles a cassava plant or a hibiscus flower shrub. Grown extensively for its nutritious leaves, the chaya spinach is an important part of a diet in tropical regions.
With over 40 species, the chaya plant is a member of the Euphorbiaceae family, and is actually a big leafy shrub that resembles a cassava or a hibiscus plant.
The chaya plant, cnidoscolus aconitifolius, is a very fast growing leafy perennial, and has been used for thousands of years to treat a number of medical ailments. It has great medicinal benefits, such as lowering blood glucose levels, and many cultures throughout history have used this plant to aid with different illnesses.
The chaya can be cooked just like spinach, and it can also be made into a tea. Chaya tea supposedly helps calm down the nerves, reduces inflammation, and cleanses the body of toxins.
Let's take a look at how to grow chaya plant as well as how to care for it and consume it!
How to Grow Chaya Plant
Planting Chaya Spinach:
- The chaya plant or tree spinach is cold sensitive and should only be grown in warm regions. This includes tropical and subtropical regions. If you don't live in a warm climate, you can grow the chaya plant in a greenhouse provided you give it the right conditions (see below.).
- Most chaya spinach shrubs are grown via propagation with woody stem cuttings that are 6-12 inches long in well draining soil. This is the best and easiest way to grow chaya spinach. Growing chaya from seeds can be quite difficult and is not recommended for the home gardener.
- The chaya spinach plant will take a while to grow, but after about a year, you may prune and harvest! Be patient as the growing process is slow, but once your plant is established, you should prune to promote growth.
- When pruning, you should remove at least 60% of the of the foliage in order for it to grow well. This will in no way damage the plant, but in fact encourage speedier growth and health.
- For a family, one chaya plant will suffice. The chaya spinach plant can grow quite big, about 6-8 feet in height, so only start off with one plant.
- Grow in shady spots, especially under fruit or nut trees. In tropical and subtropical regions, the chaya plant thrives under trees in forests or on sides of the road, so try to replicate those conditions.
- Be sure to water the chaya canes well before transplanting. If the canes are dried up, they will not take.
- Spiraling roots of the starts should be trimmed so that they grow downwards.
- The planting hole should be deep enough so that the roots can hang vertically.
- Add compost or green manure to the planting hole so that the nutrients can get through.
- Pack the soil firmly around the chaya starts and mulch around the transplant to retain moisture.
How to Use The Chaya Plant:
- Chaya spinach leaves are harvested while young and used much like spinach.
- Unlike regular spinach though, raw chaya leaves must never be consumed raw as they are toxic. They contain a toxin known as hydrocyanic glycosides.
- They must be cooked for at least 1 minute for the toxins to dissipate.
- Chaya spinach can be sauteed, boiled, added to soups and stews, frozen for later use, and even for brewing tea.
So now that you know how to grow the chaya plant, it's time to roll up your sleeves and get to planting!