Chaya, Tree spinach - Cnidoscolus aconitifolius (Mill.) I.M. Johnst.
Leaf. Cnidoscolus aconitifolius (Spinach tree, chaya)
Fig. 1
Cnidoscolus aconitifolius (Spinach tree, chaya). Leaf. Waianapanapa, Maui, Hawaii.
Also known as Jatropha aconitifolia

Spinach Tree leaves
Fig. 6
Spinach Tree leaves

Flowers and leaves
Fig. 9
C. aconitifolius (Spinach tree, chaya). Flowers and leaves. Waianapanapa, Maui, Hawaii.
Also known as J. aconitifolia.

Three year old plant, pollarded at about 3 ft (1 m)
Fig. 10
Three year old plant,
pollarded at about 3 ft (1 m)
Scientific name
Cnidoscolus aconitifolius (Mill.) I.M. Johnst. and C. chayamansa McVaugh
kah-knee-doe-SKOHL-us a-kon-eye-tih-FOH-lee-us 10
Common names
Cabbage-star, tree-spinach; manioc bâtard (French); chaya (Spanish); copapayo 1

C. aconitifolius subsp. aconitifoliusC. chaya Lundell; C. chayamansa McVaugh; C. fragrans (Kunth) Pohl; C. longipedunculatus (Brandegee) Pax & K.Hoffm.; C. napifolius (Desr.) Pohl; C. palmatus (Willd.) Pohl; C. quinquelobatus (Mill.) León; Jatropha aconitifolia Mill.; J. aconitifolia var. multipartita Müll.Arg.; J. aconitifolia var. palmata (Willd.) Müll.Arg.; J. aconitifolia var. papaya (Medik.) Pax; J. deutziiflora Croizat; J. fragrans Kunth; J. longipedunculata Brandegee; J. napifolia Desr.; J. palmata Willd.; J. palmata Sessé & Moc. ex Cerv.; J. papaya Medik.; J. quinqueloba Sessé; J. quinquelobata Mill.; J. urens var. inermis Calvino; J. urens var. longipedunculata Brandegee 4
Cassava, Manihot spp. and Jatropha spp.
Mexico (Yucatan), Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua 1
USDA hardiness zones
Tropical wet and/or dry 2
Food; living fence; medicinal; ornamental; compost; mulch
6.5-20 ft (2-6 m) 3
Plant habit
Large leafy shrub
Growth rate
Multi-stemmed when pruned
Pruning requirement
Keep to 5-8 ft (1.5-2.5 m) for ease of harvesting
Evergreen, dark green, alternate, simple; palmately lobed; 6-8 in. (14-20 cm) across; borne on a long slender petiole 5
Small, white; male and female flowers are borne at the end of long stems
Light requirement
full sun, tolerates shade
Short day (<12 hrs)
Soil tolerances
Tolerant of a wide range of well drained soils
PH preference
5.5 to 6.5 2
Drought tolerance
Some drought tolerated
Soil salt tolerance
Not salt tolerant 3
Soil depth for planting
Medium 20-60 in. (50-150 cm)
Shallow 8-20 in. (20-50 cm)
Cold tolerance
Tropical; tolerant to 54°F  (12 °C) 2
Plant spacing
10 ft (3 m); living fence: 3 ft (1m); commercial production: 3-6.5 ft (1-2 m) 9
Invasive potential *
None reported
Pest/disease resistance
Chaya is quite insect and disease resistant
Known hazard
The raw Chaya plant contains cyanogenic glycosides, sources of cyanide poisoning; always cook it; vertebrate poisons: mammals, birds 2
The sticky sap may cause skin irritation to some people.

Reading Material

Chaya—Cnidoscolus chayamansa McVaugh from the University of Florida pdf
Plant of the month: Chaya. Mayan Tree-Spinach by Arthur Lee Jacobson
Cnidoscolus aconitifolius: Tree Pot Herb from Eat The Weeds and Other Things Too website

Some Cnidoscolus species have been classified as Jatropa but are now considered Cnidoscolus C. chayamansa McVaugh, has also been called C. aconitifolius (Mill.) I.M. Johnst.

Sorting Cnidoscolus Names from the Multilingual Multiscript Plant Name Database, University of Melbourne, Australia ext. link

Originally, most likely, from Northern America: Mexico, and Central America: Belize; El Salvador; Guatemala; Honduras; Nicaragua. Cultivars have been distributed to Cuba, Florida, other parts of Mexico, and the Southwest United States.

From their document 6, Echo has been distributing their non-stinging cultivar to a number of countries, Africa and parts of Asia, Kenya, Philippines, Hawaii, Zambia, Bolivia, Tanzania, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Bahamas, Indonesia, and has received information on Chaya's trials, growth, and successes and failures.

Chaya, an important perennial vegetable, is a vigorous and attractive large leafy shrub, particularly tolerant of poor growing conditions.

Dark green, alternate, simple, slick surfaced often with some hairs, and palmately lobed (much like the leaves of okra). Each leaf is 6 to 8 inches across and is borne on a long slender petiole (leaf stem). Where the leaf stem connects to the leaf, the leaf veins are fleshy and cuplike. The wood of young stems is soft, easily broken, and susceptible to rot. When cut, the stem exudes a white latex. 5

Chaya Leaf Chaya leaf Chaya leaf underneath
Fig. 2  Fig. 3 Fig. 4

Fig. 2. Chaya leaf. The type found in Florida has five lobes 5
Fig. 3. Chaya leaf
Fig. 4. Chaya leaf, underneath

Chaya leaves Young Chaya leaf Chaya leaves and new growth
Fig. 5 Fig. 7  Fig. 14

Fig. 5. Chaya leaves
Fig. 7. Young Chaya leaf
Fig. 14. Chaya leaves and new growth

Chaya blooms frequently, and both male and female flowers are borne together at the end of long flower stems. Both kinds of flowers are small, less than 10 mm long. The male flowers are much more abundant. In the fall trials at Gainesville, FL, seed pods about 1-inch wide and the size of walnuts were produced. 5

Cnidoscolus aconitifolius (Spinach tree, chaya)
Fig. 8.

Fig. 8. Cnidoscolus aconitifolius (Spinach tree, chaya). Flowers and leaves. Ulupalakua, Maui, Hawaii. Also known as Jatropha aconitifolia.

None edible.
Seed pods are about 1-inch wide, and the size of walnuts in the fall trials at Gainesville, FL. 5

Wild Chaya is not as popular because of its stinging hairs. Cultivated varieties differ in the degree of lobing of the leaves, the size of the leaf, and quantity of the stinging hairs.
"Estrella" without stinging hairs, faster growing with deeply lobed leaves 7
"Hog" is a large leaf cultivar, no stinging hairs and is said to be similar to those served in Mexican restaurants. 7
"Pig" chaya, sometimes known as keken-chay, is one of the very best eating varieties. It has small leaves, with three shallow lobes and almost no spines.
"Redonda." 5

Once established leaves and pieces of tender and succulent stem can be harvested for cooking. The sap may cause skin irritation to some people.
The first harvest may take place after 90 - 120 days 2
Sixty percent or more of the leaves may be removed at harvest, with enough left for healthy new growth. Since most gardeners need only a few leaves at a time, one plant harvested on a continuous basis is adequate 5

Sticky, white milky sap Sticky, white milky sap
Fig. 15 Fig. 16

Fig. 15,16. Sticky, white milky sap

Crop cycle
Year round. 2

Chaya is propagated by stem cuttings. To prepare cuttings take a 6-12 inch (15-30 cm) length section of a woody stem containing 2-3 nodes. Cuttings can be taken from either the top or the bottom portion of a stem, but it must be woody. Cuttings from the top portion of the stems have less problems with rotting during the rooting process. The soft, green growing tips should be avoided.
Remove all leaves and air dry the cuttings in the shade for 3-4 days before planting. This will allow the cut ends to seal, making them less susceptible to rotting.
Cuttings can be planted directly in the ground, or in nursery containers and transplanted to the field. Cuttings planted directly in the ground are more susceptible to rotting.
Cuttings should be planted with 1-2 nodes beneath the soil and kept moist. It is important not to over water the cuttings, because this will increase rotting.
Cuttings are ready for transplanting when mature leaves are produced. Edible greenery is produced within 3-5 months. 8
For detailed information please refer to Echo Technical Notes, Chaya. 6

Planting distance should be at least 10 ft (3 m). It is cold sensitive and should be planted at the beginning of a warm season. The optimal growing temperature is 68-90 °F (20-32 °C), and the absolute temperature range is 54-100°F  (12-38 °C). 2
To create a living fence, plant rooted cutting every 3 ft (1m).
For commercial production, rows of Chaya should be planted 3-6.5 ft (1-2 m) apart, with 3 ft (1m) between plants in a row. 9


Irrigate during dry periods.

It is a good idea to prune periodically to promote new growth. Try pruning styles such as pollarding or coppicing to produce a good quantity of young growth for harvesting.
Pollard is a European traditional term for cutting off the upper branches of a tree to encourage new growth at the top, thus promoting a dense head of branches and foliage.
Copice is also a European traditional term for woodland management, where particular trees make new growth from the stump or the roots if cut down. Young tree stems are periodically or regularly cut down to ground level.

Pollarding; last season's growth from the pruning area Last season's growth Pollarding; closeup of growth from the pruning area
Fig. 11 Fig. 12
Fig. 13

Fig. 11,12. Last season's growth from the pollarded area
Fig. 13. Closeup of growth from the pollarded area

Fertilizing and Irrigation
Regular fertilizer application and irrigation will increase the quantity and quality of leaves.

Tomato hornworms can rapidly defoliate a young plant, however it will rejuvenate new leaves.
Fungal (e.g., rust) or broad mite pests are usually seasonal. 6

Tobacco Hornworm, Manduca sexta (Linnaeus), and Tomato Hornworm, Manduca quinquemaculata (Haworth), (Insecta: Lepidoptera: Sphingidae) from the University of Florida pdf 4 pages

Chaya is a host of CCMV (Cassava Common Mosaic Virus) although plant materials are available from none-infected sources.

Food Uses
Younger leaves and bits of stems are cut and used very much like spinach. Large leaves are cut into manageable pieces before cooking. Leaves are immersed and simmered for 20 minutes and then served with oil or butter. 5
Chaya, compared with spinach (Spinacia oleracea), retains it's texture somewhat and it's volume, so much less is required for a recipe.
Like spinach it can be canned or frozen. 2


Chaya leaves contain toxic hydrocyanic glycosides (HCN). Always cook chaya and avoid breathing the vapors as the HCN boils off as a gas.
The stinging hairs (if present) and toxicity are destroyed when cooked and so the cooking liquid is fine to drink.
As with spinach always use non-reactive cookware (non-aluminum).

The leaves are very high in protein, calcium, iron, carotene and vitamins A, B and C. 6
The amino acids in chaya are well balanced, which is even more important for those in impoverished parts of the world, who have a diet low in protein and for children and pregnant or nursing mothers.

Serving Size: 1/2 cup (1OOg) fresh leaves

% Daily Value
USDA, 2000 Calorie Diet 
Protein 7.4 g 14.8 %
Calcium 330 mg 33 %
Iron 9.3 mg 51.7 %
Vitamin A 1357 IU 27 %
Vitamin C 205 mg 342 %
Source: Bittenbender, UH-Horticulture Department.
Honolulu, HI.

Comparisons of nutritional compositions of leaves of chaya (C. chayamansa McVaughn) and spinach (Spinacia oleracea L.) per 100 g fresh weight.
Component chaya spinach
Water % 85.3 90.7
Protein % 5.7 3.2
Fat % 0.4 0.3
Crudefiber % 1.9 0.9
Total CHO % 4.2 3.8
Ash % 2.2 1.8
Calcium mg 199.4 101.3
Phosphorus mg 39.0 30.0
Potassium mg 217.2 146.5
Iron mg 11.4 5.7
Ascorbicacid mg 164.7 48.1
Carotenoids mg 0.085 0.014
Source: Kuti J.O. 1996, 3

Chaya - High Nutrition Perennial from pdf

Medicinal Uses **
Blood system applications, digestive system applications,  sensory applications, immune system applications, respiratory applications, muscular/skeletal applications. 2
Usually cooked leaves are eaten. Teas or infusions are made from the leaves. 6

Chaya Leaf: A Mayan Super Food by J. E. Williams

Other Uses
A very good mulch for vegetable gardens where it provides high minerals and nitrogen
Chaya makes an excellent fast growing edible, living fence. The flowers attract pollinators.

Economic Importance
Because of it's ability to grow well in poor growth conditions (either arid or rainy, and sunny or shady), high nutritional value, and good disease and pest resistance Chaya is recommended and promoted by a number of organizations.

List of Growers and Vendors


1 "Taxon: Cnidoscolus aconitifolius (Mill.) I. M. Johnst." U.S. National Plant Germplasm System. Accessed 9 July 2017.
"Cnidoscolus chayamansa." Eurocrop. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Accessed 19 May 2017.
3 "Cnidoscolus chayamansa." EcoPort. Id: 4704, EcoPort Foundation Inc., 28 Aug. 2001, Accessed 10 July 2017.
4 "Cnidoscolus chayamansa synonyms." The Plant List (2013). Version 1.1., Accessed 19 May 2017.
5 Stephens, James M. "Chaya - Cnidoscolus chayamansa McVaugh." EDIS University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. HS578, May 1994, Revised Aug. 2015. Accessed 19 May 2017.
6 Berkelaar, Dawn. "Echo Technical Notes, Chaya." Echo, 1 Jan. 2006, Accessed 19 May 2017.
"Chaya." Accessed 28 May 2017.
"Chaya, Spinach tree, Chay, Kikilchayo, Cnidoscolus chayamansa." Pacific Islands Farm Manual., Tropical Perennial Vegetable Leaflet No. 4., ADAP-Integrated Farm Development Project, CTAHR, University of Hawaii, August 1994, pubs/Chaya, Spinach Tree, Chay, Kikilchay.pdf. Accessed 20 May 2017.
9 "Chaya - High Nutrition Perennial." USAID. Technical Bulletin, #92, July 2013, Accessed 19 May 2017.
10 Deane, Green. "Cnidoscolus aconitifolius: Tree Pot Herb." Eat the Weeds and Other Things Too website. Accessed 31 May 2017.


Fig. 1 Starr, Forest and Kim. Cnidoscolus aconitifolius (Spinach tree, chaya), Leaf. Starr Environmental, no. 090623-1606, 23 June 2017, under (CC BY 4.0). Accessed 29 May 2017.
Fig. 2 Vincentz, Frank. Chaya leaf. EDIS, University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, fig. 1, HS578, May 1994, Revised Aug. 2015. Under CC BY-SA 3.0. Accessed 29 May 2017.
Fig. 3,4,5,6,7,10,11,12,13,14,15,16 Jackson, Karen. Chaya series. May 2017.
Fig. 8 Starr, Forest and Kim. Cnidoscolus aconitifolius (Spinach tree, chaya), Flowers and leaves. Starr Environmental, no. 090601-8712, 1 June 2009, under (CC BY 4.0). Accessed 29 May 2017.
Fig. 9 Starr, Forest and Kim. Cnidoscolus aconitifolius (Spinach tree, chaya), Flowers and leaves. Starr Environmental, no. 090623-1605, 23 June 2009, under (CC BY 4.0). Accessed 29 May 2017.

*   UF/IFAS Assessment of Non-native Plants in Florida's Natural Areas
** The information provided above is not intended to be used as a guide for treatment of medical conditions using plants.

Published 7 Aug. 2017 KJ
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