Photo by Melody

PlantFiles: Spinach Tree, Tread Softly, Cabbage Star, Chaya
Cnidoscolus aconitifolius

Family: Euphorbiaceae (yoo-for-bee-AY-see-ee) (Info)
Genus: Cnidoscolus (nye-DOS-ko-lus) (Info)
Species: aconitifolius (a-kon-eye-tih-FOH-lee-us) (Info)

Synonym:Jatropha aconitifolia

21 members have or want this plant for trade.

Tropicals and Tender Perennials

6-8 ft. (1.8-2.4 m)

8-10 ft. (2.4-3 m)

USDA Zone 9b: to -3.8 C (25 F)
USDA Zone 10a: to -1.1 C (30 F)
USDA Zone 10b: to 1.7 C (35 F)

Sun Exposure:
Full Sun

Parts of plant are poisonous if ingested
Handling plant may cause skin irritation or allergic reaction

Bloom Color:
White/Near White

Bloom Time:
Blooms all year
Blooms repeatedly


Other details:
This plant is attractive to bees, butterflies and/or birds
Average Water Needs; Water regularly; do not overwater

Soil pH requirements:
5.6 to 6.0 (acidic)
6.1 to 6.5 (mildly acidic)

Patent Information:

Propagation Methods:
From herbaceous stem cuttings
From woody stem cuttings
From softwood cuttings
From semi-hardwood cuttings

Seed Collecting:
N/A: plant does not set seed, flowers are sterile, or plants will not come true from seed

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There are a total of 15 photos.
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8 positives
No neutrals
No negatives

Gardeners' Notes:

Positive Nefitara On May 3, 2012, Nefitara from Port Richey, FL (Zone 9a) wrote:

I live in Zone 9b FL and it loves it here! This plant is unique and beautiful, I'm so glad I came across it at the park! Nothing but good things to say about it.

Positive dave2daves On Aug 23, 2011, dave2daves from Cutler, FL wrote:

Here is what people need to know about Chaya Tree Spinach for beginners. This tradtional "Mayan greens" shrub has extensive history and use well warranted by its exceptional nutritional value and culinary flavor. However there are some dangers in handling this plant well worth noting as I learned the hard way.
There are 2 Chaya varieties commonly available here in the states. The "Papaya leaf" variety and a rounder "Lobate leaf" variety. This is the easiest classification since there are so many different names for these, chayamansa, actinifolia, Cnidoscolus, rodunda, picata, etc. Here is my overall comparison from experience.
Papaya Leaf- tastier, meatier leaf, dark green, perhaps more nutritional also. Collard green like in texture and flavor.
Extensive stinging hairs! Even airborn when shaken. Can be torturous but not lethal normaly. Cuttings propogate even more vigorously than Lobate Leaf type.
Lobate Leaf- less stinging hairs, much easier to handle safely. Taste and texture is milder, leaf is paler green and thinner in thickness than Papaya leaf type, perhaps less nutritious.

Note: Wearing gloves and long sleeve shirt while propagating 40 Papaya Leaf Chaya cuttings, I received fiberglass type skin irritations on my exposed neck area and in my eyes itching and swollen for a few days. It would seem these fiberglass type hairs can go airborn when shaken. Skin irritation can also happen from handling the Lobe Leaf Chaya if you make contact with the white sap, and even Lobe Leaf Chaya can have some stinging hairs. But its worth it for a perennial ultra nutritious delicious green like this.

Favorite uses:
Stews, use like collard greens
Tea, boil it 15-30minutes

Favorite Recipe-Curry Chaya Chicken stew

Positive ChayaMan On Oct 2, 2009, ChayaMan from Largo, FL wrote:

LONG but worth it! ('scuse the caps - sub-headings only, not shouting!)

* First of all, if you have an allergy to, or are sensitive to latex, wear gloves when harvesting! Chaya is a copious producer of latex. When harvesting, start from the bottom and work upwards, so the latex will not drip onto the leaves you are picking - this saves you the effort of trying to scrub dried latex from your dinner!
* When harvesting, pick the leaves from the stems, breaking the leaf off at the petiole; breaking stems off the stalk may damage the stalk and hinder new leaf production.
* If, during harvesting or any other time, you happen to break a branch, don't despair! Stick it in some dirt and you will quickly have another plant!
* Some varieties of Chaya have fine stinging hairs - its only relative is a nuisance plant aptly named "Fireweed" - and gloves will protect you. The variety from ECHO in Ft. Myers, FL does not have the stinging hairs and produces super large leaves in my garden.

* I have sprouted Chaya from a broken off, extremely green softwood cutting 4" long, although I do not recommend this! Best results come from a 6"-24" semi-hardwood cutting in potting soil. I frequently seal the top end of the cutting with sealing wax to allow a quick buildup of hydrostatic pressure in the cutting, which pops out 1" branchlets in 3-4 days; otherwise it may be a while longer for the cutting to seal via a callous and begin to grow.
* Please be sure to orient Chaya cuttings - there is a definite "This Side Up"! Keep soil moist but not wet a few days until the cutting establishes. Chaya is tough, but too much water can rot the cutting.

* Chaya prefers Full Sun. Did I mention Full Sun? Yep! *Full* Sun! It will grow in the shade, but not well. Even the plants on the west side of my house send branches around the corner to get the morning sunlight, so keep your plants happy and plant them where the sun shines brightest. Which is a great thing to do for that "problem area" in your yard.
* As far as watering goes, don't overdo it. Once established, Chaya is an ideal plant for xeriscaping, as I have seen pictures of it growing happily on the dessicated edge of the Sahel Desert, with nothing but red sand all around it. Watering once a week, if even that much, keeps Chaya happy in the ground; container plants once per week.
* Pests: there aren't any. The high amont of Hydrocyanic Acid kills any bugs foolish enough to munch on the leaves, and deer do not like the taste of the plant. While there may be, somewhere in the world, something besides humans that eats the plants, they don't live here in Central Florida. No aphids. No mildew. No fungus. No problems.
* Cold weather: Chaya definitely does *not* like cool weather. Mine stops growing when temps hit the 40's (F). A light frost will brown the leaves, and light freeze will kill the plant to the roots, and anything colder will kill the root. Sun-loving Chaya should be grown in containers in cooler climes and kept at 40 or above, indoors with at least filtered sunlight and reduced water during the cold months.
* Size: Chaya can reach 10' high and 6' across. Plant in ground allowing sufficient clearance between expected full growth size and house, fence, etc.
* Pruning: Pollard Chaya annually to 18" in the Spring after frost danger is past for fullest leaf production. Or allow it to grow - your choice.
* Wind: Like Poinsettia, Chaya is very susceptible to wind damage, and so should be planted in a sheltered spot, if possible.

* Here's your reward for reading this far. This recipe is for Chaya Casserole with Noodles. Enjoy!

30 large Chaya leaves, cut or chopped and boiled;
1.5 cups egg noodles boiled in the Chaya water;
1 pound ground meat, browned but not drained;
1 large onion, chopped;
1 (12 oz.) can of Diced Tomatoes with Green Chilies (I used locally available Publix brand);
1 (4 oz.) can of tomato sauce.
Crushed Garlic to taste (optional)

Sautee onions and garlic (if used), then add and brown meat. Set on warmer. Cut Chaya leaves into approx. 1" pieces or chop, discarding the stems and heavy veins, then boil *15* minutes, stirring frequently. Drain and reserve water. Cook noodles in Chaya water and drain. Add tomato products and Chaya leaves to onion/meat mixture - heat and simmer 10 minutes. Stir in egg noodles and simmer 3 minutes more. Serves 4.

NOTE: Please observe 15 minute boiling time. This allows all the Hydrocyanic Acid to be driven off as steam. A 1 minute cooking time, seen elsewhere in this blog, is insufficient to accomplish this - undercooked Chaya may (and frequently does) cause nausea and vomiting.

Also, DO NOT COOK CHAYA IN ALUMINUM! The organic acid will leach aluminum from the pot or pan and cause diarrhea. Friends who have ignored these precautions came back to tell me of these problems. Cook Chaya as directed and it is safer to eat - and a great deal healthier! - than raw Spinach.....

* Chaya, aka "Mayan Tree Spinach", is the ultimate in "Guerrilla Gardening", growing food that doesn't look like food; growing food "under the radar", so to speak! It is a beautiful, low-care landscaping plant that is also delicious, and an extremely nutritional addition to the dinner table.

Positive Cambium On Jan 17, 2008, Cambium from Lamar, AR (Zone 7b) wrote:

Why is the synonym of this Jatropha? I question that although the leaves do look similar but not the flowers nor growth pattern. This is also somewhat similar to Cnidoscolus chayamansa also known as Chaya.

I love this small tree. It has a gorgeous shape & is fast growing into a bush or shaped more like a small tree. Butterflies are always on it & it has blooms all the time. It seems there may be 2 kinds of the bush. One with rounded or pointed palmate leaves. Mine are the pointed, as the pictures here show.

Several sites say that if you fully boil the leaves 1 minute the toxins are removed (much like a lot of wildfoods). Of course I don't recommend other people to try wildfoods because they may have different reactions but I enjoy them. I plucked several leaves, rinsed then sliced them into strips, covered w/water & brought to a boil for 1 minute. Heating a skillet with a little olive oil, I threw in some sliced onions then plunked the drained leaves in & simmer about a minute, Served with salt (same way I serve Poke), I found it very enjoyable & flavorful, much like a tough spinach.

Editor's Note

The synonym of Jatropha aconitifolia can be easily confirmed by looking through numerous other websites and references, including the USDA's PLANTS Database, ARS/GRIN, etc.
Positive Delisa On Jul 20, 2007, Delisa from Wildwood, FL (Zone 9a) wrote:

Zebra Longwings love this plant!

Positive JaxFlaGardener On Dec 10, 2006, JaxFlaGardener from Jacksonville, FL (Zone 8b) wrote:

I recently got a rooted cutting from this plant from a friend that grows it. She echoed the comments above -- that it is one of the best butterfly attractors in her garden and that the plant is very easy to root from cuttings. I am looking forward to growing it.

In regard to ArtCons note that the plant leaves may cause skin irritation, this plant is in the same genus (Cnidoscolus) as Stinging Nettle (Cnidoscolus stimulosus), so it probably has some of the same small hairs that can cause burning and itching on contact.

When I first saw this plant in my friend's yard, I presumed it was a Jatropha, and I see above in the alternate botanical name that the taxonomists also seemed to think it was a Jatropha at one time. The leaves are very similar in shape to Jatropha podagrica (Buddha Belly Plant).


Positive artcons On Feb 20, 2005, artcons from Fort Lauderdale, FL (Zone 10b) wrote:

The Chaya, or Spinach Tree has been a favorite of mine since day one. I currently have two growing here. One has been moved from my S fence to just on the North side of the fence around my pool. It showed no signs of damage from the move and it was a mature bush almost 6' tall when I moved it. The tree had a few flowers on it before the move. It didn't loose them after I moved it.

The second tree, which was my original from a cutting at Universal Studio's, will be three years old this summer. It is currently about 6-7'. I will keep it around 10' this year. At that height I can get close to the butterflies that frequent the tree so I can take pictures of them.

The tree has a tight canopy that doesn't permit much light through to the ground, so it can be used to put sun sensitive plants underneath. The tree can be kept to a desired height with trimming and it creates deep shade.

I get irritations on my bare arms and legs that cause a mild stinging when I rub against it. These quickly go away and do not form rashes, but they are a reminder to be carefull when pruning this bush. I believe the irritations come from the fine hairs on the leaves rather than the "milk" the tree produces when cut. The irritations are minor and do not form a rash.

In almost three years I have seen no evidence of the tree being invasive. Not one has sprouted from seeds or runners. It will make other trees from clippings left behind when it is trimmed. Just a small cut piece left on the ground will produce other trees, guaranteed!

Two of the trees back up to a concrete wall without any adverse effects from the concrete.

They bloom here in S. Florida zone 10, February through late December or when the first cold snap hits. A few flowers remain on the tree through the winter months.

The flowers are small white clusters, with up to six or seven clusters on a single shoot coming up from a mature leaf grouping. The clusters of small flowers form a "landing pad" for butterflies. Once they have landed on the cluster of small flowers they can feed from a bunch of flowers without hardly moving.

These trees are by far and away the single best butterfly attractors in my yard.

The trees grow well in direct sun and mostly shade. They flower well in either environment. It is an evergreen plant with attractive, shiny, leaves to about 10" across.

I have show three photos of different trees in the yard. The pictures show the tree height at six months, one year and two years old. I did this to show how fast and big this plant can get here in zone 10.

Positive hawkarica On Mar 19, 2004, hawkarica from Odessa, FL (Zone 9b) wrote:

I live in the Tampa area and have been growing this plant for 4 years. It will take a light freeze but 28 degrees or so will kill everything above the ground. It does come back rapidly in the spring but as a multi-stemmed bush. It will attract aphids and mealy bugs so you must keep an eye on it. Mine seems to grow to about eight feet and flowers most of the year. It is very easy to propagate from stem cuttings. Soil pH from 5.5 to 6.5 works best. I have had no chlorosis from mineral deficiencies. The foliage is attractive and the white flower spikes contrast well with its dark green color. Give it plenty of space and lots of sun and you will enjoy this plant.


This plant has been said to grow in the following regions:

Irvine, California
Brooksville, Florida
Clearwater, Florida
Cocoa Beach, Florida
Deland, Florida
Delray Beach, Florida
Fort Lauderdale, Florida (3 reports)
Hollywood, Florida
Jacksonville, Florida (2 reports)
Largo, Florida
Lecanto, Florida
Lithia, Florida
Lutz, Florida
Melbourne, Florida
Melbourne Beach, Florida
Miami, Florida
New Port Richey, Florida
Odessa, Florida
Orlando, Florida
Palm Bay, Florida
Port Richey, Florida
Port Saint Lucie, Florida
Rockledge, Florida
Saint Petersburg, Florida
Stuart, Florida
Tampa, Florida (2 reports)
Wauchula, Florida
Weston, Florida
Zephyrhills, Florida
Austin, Texas
Leming, Texas
San Antonio, Texas
Christiansted, Virgin Islands

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