The Chaya plant, whose botanical name is Cnidoscolus aconitifolius and a second species Cnidoscolus chayamansa, is a fast growing, large and leafy perennial shrub whose origins are believed to be in the Mexican Yucatan and which can be found in various parts of Central America. Regionally it is known as just “chaya”, which is derived from the Mayan word for the plant which is “chaay”. The ancient Mayan’s used chaya as a dietary staple for centuries because of its amazing nutritional qualities which gave people the strength they needed for their often harsh work and physically demanding lives. They also recognized chaya as having many medicinal qualities to keep the mind and body strong and healthy. Despite the superfood qualities of bountiful plant, the use of chaya has become largely forgotten and few people grow and harvest it.
Chayas nutritional benefits shows that it contains generally twice as much nutrition as spinach, Chinese cabbage or amaranth. Its green 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. Chaya is usually very easy to grow in a region with a median average temperature of 75 degrees, and makes an excellent addition to a garden due to its tidy growth pattern and maple-like leaves. When grown close together they make attractive shrubs and are also generally pest free. Chaya plants are extremely hearty, they can grow in poor soils and have also shown to survive in freezing temperatures, quickly sprouting back up when it warms up. Chaya plants can be grown from seeds or cuttings, and within under one year a plant can start providing edible leaves and can be a source of food throughout the entire year in warm climates. A chaya plant regrows its leaves very quickly and may live up to 30 years. These reasons are why chaya plants were so important to the ancient indigenous people, and why it should still be an important staple for poorer communities of today who depend on reliable food sources.
Chaya is traditionally eaten by boiling the leaves, stem tips and shoots for about 20 minutes. Frying the plant has also been done as an alternative. The cooked leaves maintain a dense texture similar to collards and are generally very mild tasting which make excellent additions to soups, stews, casseroles, sauces and salads and any other way you would prepare spinach or collards. Larger leaves can also be used to wrap food with. It is important to note that some varieties may contain hydrogen cyanide, which is poisonous, so it should be cooked in a well ventilated area. Also cooking should not be done on an aluminum container as a toxic reaction can occur with some varieties. It is best cooked in a clay or glass container. Not all varieties contain harmful chemicals and there have been reports of people eating the raw leaves, but its best to err on the safe side.
Some of the health benefits of chaya include:
- Improved blood circulation
- aiding in digestion
- improved vision
- disinflamation of veins and hemorrhoids
- helping to lower cholesterol
- helping to reduce weight
- preventing coughs
- augmenting calcium in the bones
- decongestion and disinfecting of the lungs
- preventing anemia by replacing iron in the blood
- improving memory and brain function
- combating arthritis and diabetes
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