Chaya, also known as Tree Spinach, often confused with Chenopodium giganteum is a large, fast growing leafy perennial shrub, native to the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico. The binomen is Cnidoscolus aconitifolius: The genus name coming from the Greek knido meaning nettle, and scolus, meaning thorn, and the specific name means that it has leaves (folius) like Aconitum. It has succulent stems which exude a milky sap when cut. It can grow to be 6 meters tall, but is usually pruned to about 2m for easier leaf harvest. It is a popular leafy vegetable in Mexican and Central American cuisines, similar to spinach. The leaves must be cooked and eaten, however, as the raw leaves are toxic.
It is taxonomically recognized as belonging to Cnidoscolus aconitifolius (Miller) I. M. Johnston subsp. aconitifolius. The name Cnidoscolus chayamansa McVaugh is still sometimes used. Ross-Ibarra and Molina-Cruz (2002) recognize four varieties that are cultivated and morphologically distinct.
Some varieties have stinging hairs and require gloves for harvesting. Cooking destroys the stinging hairs. Chaya is one of the most productive green vegetables.
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.
Young Chaya leaves and the thick, tender stem tips are cut and boiled as a spinach. It is a tasty vegetable, and is exceptionally high in protein, calcium, iron, and vitamin A. In fact, levels of chaya leaf nutrients are two to threefold greater than any other land based leafy green vegetable.Chaya leaves have a possible antidiabetic effect.
Traditionally leaves are immersed and simmered for 20 minutes and then served with oil or butter. Cooking for 20 minutes or more will render the leaves safe to eat. The stock or liquid the leaves are cooked in can also safely be consumed as the cyanide is volatilized as Hydrogen Cyanide (HCN) during cooking. Do not cook in aluminum cookware as a toxic reaction can result, causing diarrhea.