Monday, December 4, 2017

CHAYA (Cnidoscolus chayamansa)

Chaya is a plant that I am slowly starting to appreciate although I also have my concerns about it too.  A gardening friend gave me a 2 ft. cutting of it ten years ago along with the warning that the leaves must be cooked as it is poisonous to eat it raw.  That made me a little apprehensive but, after all, there are other plants like taro leaves and cassava that have to be cooked too and I still eat them.  The cutting was planted in my kitchen garden and within a few months it took off like crazy.  Now I was getting worried about the plant taking over my kitchen garden area so I decided to pull it out before it had total control.  I dug the plant out and propped the main central branch against a coconut trunk at the back of the yard while I decided what to do with it.  Did I want to keep it or not?  Well within a few weeks that branch had sent down roots and established itself in that place despite the sand soil and the salt winds of the back yard.  So there it is still, now a tree of ten years growth and about 10 ft. high.

There are times when it gets too bushy and I just snap some of the easily breakable branches off.  The bountiful, large green leaves give green bulk to the nearby compost heap.  However, I always make sure the branches go into the green waste bin to be chipped so they do not get a chance to sprout into more trees.

I have grown to admire the Chayas survival skills.  I joke that it will be the tree that feeds us if our island goes down because of a huge hurricane or nuclear attack.  Increasingly I hear of medicinal benefits from this plant.  Especially for people with diabetes.  Google around on the internet for more information if you are interested.  Meanwhile, the Chaya is an attractive small tree in the back yard and the butterflies like the small white flowers it produces.

The Chaya is native to the Yucatan peninsular in Central America and part of the food and medicinal heritage of the Maya who live in that area.  The Chaya leaves are very nutritional in minerals and vitamins with even a 5.7% protein count.  The thing that the eater must understand is that this plant has a high content of toxic hydrocyanic acid (cyanide) so it must be cooked for at least 15 minutes to release the toxins.  That being said, some claim that a few raw leaves a day are not going to bother you but why tempt fate.  The plant also chemically reacts with aluminum so do not not use aluminum pots or serving plates for it.  After these precautions, you will get a bountiful, tasty and nutritional vegetable to add to your soups and stews.  If you want to use the leaves in green smoothies or salads you will need to cook them first.  The leaves are used to make medicinal teas but soup is going to do the same for you.

Note leaf shape and the white sap oozing caused by leaf removal.

The Chaya tree has rapid new growth and likes good drainage in the soil.  It is easy to grow and easy to keep trimmed down for harvest of the leaves.  One tree is enough to supply your families needs.  This is a plant that does not need to be watered or fertilized once rooted.  The large soft green leaves are shaped rather like a maple leaf and because of that it sometimes gets mixed up with another tropical alternative vegetable called Lau Pele or Edible Hibiscus (June 2015) which is related to Okra.  It is easy to distinguish between the two.  Just snap a branch tip off.  The Chaya will bleed a white sap while the Lau Pele/Edible Hibiscus oozes a clear slimy sap like Okra.  I do find the white sap of the Chaya to be a bit irritating to my hands so I wear gloves when trimming the Chaya tree.