Chaya/Tree Spinach/Cnidoscolus aconitifolius

Would you like to try the challenge of Chaya? Though you need to be absolutely sure you’re not afraid, wild Chaya are a gourmet delicacy anyone can have and enjoy it without fear. Eat this – it’s good for you!

Chaya, also known as Tree Spinach, often confused with Chenopodium giganteum is a large, fast growing leafy perennial shrub,  native to the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. Although found widely throughout the Maya world, the greatest variety of names for the plant as well as knowledge of its use is found in Yucatán, which points to the region as the area of origin and the place where Chaya was ultimately domesticated. There are several varieties of Chaya, but the most common, Chayamansa, cannot reproduce sexually and so it is understood to be a domesticated plant that must be tended by human beings. Because it grows readily from cuttings, Chaya has been cultivated since Prehispanic times, and is still planted in family orchards or gardens, and close to the house as an ornamental. In this way it is easily accessible for daily use as food, medicine and to sell for a subsistence income. Among the Mayas of Yucatán and the Kekchi Maya of Guatemala, Chaya has long been and remains a significant part of the staple diet and is the main dietary source of leafy vegetables.

Cnidoscolus Aconitifolius, or more commonly know as Treadsoftly, is a tree shrub of the genus Cnidoscolus. It’s duration is perennial which means it will grow year after year. The is tree 20 feet high, with short stout trunk to 6 inches in diameter, few stout branches, and compact dense half-round crown as broad as height of tree. Leaves alternate, with very long round green petioles 6-14 inches long, spreading in all directions. Leaf blades 6-14 inches long and broad, palmately 7- or 5-lobed with as many light green veins from the heart-shaped base, the lobes deeply divided and narrow, long pointed, and coarsely toothed with smaller lobes, thin and hairless. The upper surface is dull dark green and turned up at veins, the lower surface dull light green with raised veins. Flower clusters (cymes) are terminal at the end of a long stalk, flat-topped, and 3-5 inches across, bearing many male flowers and few female flowers (monoecious) without petals. Male flowers many but only a few open at one time, about 1/2 inch long and broad, consisting of narrow greenish-tinged calyx tube 1/4 inch long, 5 spreading elliptic lobes 1/4 inch long, and on orange disk the white stamen column with 2 circles of 5 stamens to 3/8 inch long and third circle nonfunctional.

Chaya is a good source of protein, vitamins, calcium, and iron; and is also a rich source of antioxidants. However, raw Chaya leaves are toxic as they contain a glucoside that can release toxic cyanide. Cooking is essential prior to consumption to inactivate the toxic components; in this Chaya is similar to Cassava, which also contains toxic hydrocyanic glycosides and must be cooked before being eaten. 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. It is also sauteéd with onions, garlic and bell peppers to make a nourishing side dish. As a cultivar, Chaya is slowly making inroads in southern tier United States, particularly south Texas and Florida. Don’t be afraid to try new things, at least you’ll look healthier, and that’s what really matters.

Mayan Chaya Cream Soup 
*Chef Josue Cime*

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.

Place Chaya leaves, chopped onions and crushed garlic in a pot with the vegetable bouillon and cook for two 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. Final Touch:  2 spoons of unsweetened cream. NOTE:  You may use fresh organic spinach leaves and follow this delicious recipe.

Arroz con Chaya/Chaya with Rice

Makes 4 side-dish servings
1 cup water
½ tsp pepper
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp chicken stock (or vegetable) granules
1 lime
½ cup long-grain rice
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
I lb Chaya, steamed and chopped

In saucepan, combine water, onion, garlic, oregano, chicken stock, and pepper. Bring to a boil; stir in rice, reduce heat, cover and simmer 10 minutes. Stir in cooked Chaya. Cover and cook 5-10 minutes more until the rice is tender. Stir lightly with a fork and mix in lime juice. May be served hot or cold.

About zoom50

“It’s amazing how people can get so excited about a rocket to the moon and not give a damn about smog, oil leaks, the devastation of the environment with pesticides, hunger, disease”
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3 Responses to Chaya/Tree Spinach/Cnidoscolus aconitifolius

  1. Meg says:

    It is truly wonderful to see a photo of Hacienda Chichen Maya Chef Josue Cime’s own Chaya Cream Soup in your article. He has helped many of us enjoy the delicious taste and rich nutritional value of Chaya among visitors to Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico. His gourmet Maya Fusion cuisine includes many Chaya dishes in his menu that I miss eating again…. wonder if in Fla. I can get fresh organic Chaya nowadays.

    • zoom50 says:

      A few years ago I travelled to Mexico to see the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza. I stayed at the Hacienda Chichen Maya, and I was amazed with their exquisite Mayan cuisine. I ordered brazo de Chaya con pepita de calabaza, because a friend had recommended. I must say , I really enjoyed it!

      You can find organic chaya at

      Thanks for reading! 🙂

  2. Pingback: Chaya, Mayan Tree Spinach | Edible Plants

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