Cnidoscolus chayamansa (Syn C.aconitifolius)

Also called : Tree spinach

Chaya or Chayamansa is originally from southern Mexico and is popular in Yucatecan Maya cuisine. Chaya grows in size from a large shrub to a small tree. It has edible leaves that are considered more nutritious than spinach that are rich in vitamin C, calcium, iron, phosphorus, and are an important source of protein.

There are many varieties of Chaya but this post will focus on C.aconitifolius. Chaya (and its wild relatives) have at one stage or another been used for treating arthritis, back pain, biliousness, as a blood purifier, boils, circulatory problems, diabetes, as a digestive stimulant, eye problems, gum disease, haemorrhoids, heart disease, hypercholesterolemia, jaundice, kidney pain, kidney stones, muscular disorders, as a purgative, rheumatism, toothache, ulcers, urinary “troubles” and to remove warts (1). In womens health it has been noted as a galactagogue and has been used in labour and to aid in cases of retention of the afterbirth.

  1. as well as the power to “remove witchcraft”


Some varieties have stinging hairs on the leaves and care needs to be taken during harvesting. The sting is removed by cooking (much like nettles). The leaves are considered toxic if eaten raw. Chaya is similar to cassava in that it contains hydrocyanic glycosides which need to be removed by simmering it in liquid for 20 minutes or so. It should not be cooked in aluminium pots as this can also create toxic chemicals which can cause diarrhoea.

Poisonous look-alike

Take extreme care with this plant particularly when wildcrafting. To the uninitiated this plant appears quite similar to the Castor oil plant, Ricinus communis. Both Chaya and the Castor oil leaves and plants grow to a similar size and the leaf shape of both plants is quite similar The Castor oil plant however is highly toxic to humans, capable of causing serious illness and death. The flowers, leaves and seeds are poisonous and eating only 2-8 seeds can be fatal.

Ricinus communis. The Castor oil plant.

The Castor oil plant can be readily identified by its seeds which are contained within a spiky seedpod.

Chaya seedpod

The seedpod of Chaya looks very different to that of the Castor oil plant

Medicinal uses

According to the National Institute of Nutrition in Mexico City Chaya has been used (and can be used) medicinally for improving circulation, lowering cholesterol levels, fighting arthritis, increasing calcium retention, improving memory and brain functions, to decongest and disinfect the lungs, to prevent coughing, improve vision, to reduce venous inflammation and haemorrhoids and a decoction made from the leaves has been used (and is being studied) as a remedy for diabetes. To make 1 litre of tea use 3-5 medium sized leaves. Drink 1 cup 3 x day before meals. To treat diabetes it is often used in the form of a shake (1) and can be mixed with nopal (2) and calabaza (3). Generally speaking the medicinal intake of this plant was simply eating it as a vegetable. The water the plant was cooked in was sometimes used as an eyewash, this liquid was also drunk warm as an aid to expel the afterbirth. Chaya root can be poulticed to treat back pain and in a manner similar to stinging nettle (4) it was used to treat fatigue, muscular disorders, arthritis and rheumatism hitting the affected areas with the fresh plant which causes a painful stinging that revives the muscle or joint (See notes in Cautions in the above paragraph)

  1. a blended drink
  2. Opuntia species cactus – which has known benefits in treating diabetes (See Post The Medicinal Qualities of Opuntia Cladodes)
  3. Curcubita species – specific variety unknown.
  4. Urtica dioica

Plant Resources of Tropical Africa notes similar uses. Extracts have been used to treat alcoholism, diabetes, insomnia, skin disorders (1), venereal diseases, gout, scorpion stings and to improve brain function and memory. It does note that most medicinal properties have never been scientifically tested but in one study “Diabetic rabbits, fed increasingly higher quantities of the leaves, showed a significant drop in blood sugar levels” (Kuti & Torres 1996) which demonstrates that it does have some utility in the treatment of diabetes and that “Chicks fed diets high in the leaf meal had a lower overall mass but a significant increase in absolute heart mass, liver mass, red blood cell count and a significant reduction in mortality”(Iturbe-Chinas 1986). This does seem to suggest a weight loss (or weight gain prevention) action whilst a general overall strengthening of health.

  1. the plant is high in proteolytic enzymes which could be an explanation for its use in various skin disorders

Historical records for the medicinal use of Chaya are relatively limited and up until modern times there was very little information on this plant outside of Yucatan. Most of its claims have never been scientifically tested so utilising this plant medicinally may involve some trial and error.

Cnidoscolus aconitifolius.
(Estrella variety)                                   
Cnidoscolus chayamansa
(Maple leaf variety)

Arroz con Chaya


  • 1 cup water
  • ½ tsp pepper
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 tsp chicken stock granules
  • 1 lime
  • ½ cup long-grain rice
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • ½ kilo (1 pound) chaya


  1. Wash Chaya leaves and places them in a pot with cold water over medium-high heat. Simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from pot, drain and chop
  2. 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.
  3. Stir in cooked chaya. Cover and cook 5-10 minutes more until the rice is tender.
  4. Stir lightly with a fork and mix in lime juice.
  5. May be served hot or cold.

The cooked chaya can also be used in a scrambled egg dish.

Chaya con Huevos


  • 2 teaspoons of vegetable oil
  • 2 Tablespoons of white onion finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup tomato chopped
  • 1/3 cup Chaya cooked and chopped
  • 2 eggs
  • salt to taste


  1. Heat a medium-sized non-stick frying pan over low heat. Add the oil, once it is hot add the onion and cook for a couple of minutes.
  2. Stir in the chopped tomato and cook for a minute and then add the chopped chaya leaves. Sauté for two more minutes.

Crack the eggs and add to the pan, stir and season with salt to taste


  1. O.A. Awoyinka, I.O. Balogun, A.A. Ogunnowo : Phytochemical screening and in vitro bioactivity of Cnidoscolus aconitifolius (Euphorbiaceae) : J. Med. Plants Res., 1 (2007), pp. 63-65
  2. Iturbe-Chinas, F. A., and A. Lopez-Munguia Ca-nales. (1986). Proteolytic Enzymes from Cnidoscolus chayamansa ‘‘chaya’’. Journal of Food Science 51(1):243–244
  3. Kuti, J.O. and E.S. Torres. (1996). Potential nutritional and health benefits of tree spinach. p. 516-520. In: J. Janick (ed.), Progress in new crops. ASHS Press, Arlington, VA.
  4. Martınez Alfaro, M. A. (1984). Medicinal plants used in a Totonac community of the Sierra Norte de Puebla: Tuzamapan de Galeana, Puebla, Mexico.Journal of Ethnopharmacology 11:203–211.
  5. Moura, Luiz & Neto, João & Lopes, Tiago & Benjamin, Stephen & Brito, Fernando & Magalhães, Francisco & Tramontina Florean, Eridan & Sousa, Daniele & Florindo Guedes, Maria Izabel. (2019). Ethnobotanic, phytochemical uses and ethnopharmacological profile of genus Cnidoscolus spp. (Euphorbiaceae): A comprehensive overview. Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy. 109. 1670-1679. 10.1016/j.biopha.2018.10.015.
  6. F.O. Oladeinde, A.M. Kinyua, A.A. Laditan, R. Michelin, J.L. Bryant, F. Denaro, J.M. Makinde, A.L. Williams, A.P. Kennedy, Y. Bronner : Effect of Cnidoscolus aconitifolius leaf extract on the blood glucose and insulin levels of inbred type 2 diabetic mice : Cell. Mol. Biol., 53 (2007), pp. 34-41
  7. Ross-Ibarra, Jeffrey & Molina-Cruz, Alvaro. (2002). The Ethnobotany of Chaya (Cnidoscolus Aconitifolius ssp. Aconitifolius Breckon): A Nutritious Maya Vegetable. Econ Bot. 56. 350-365. 10.1663/0013-0001(2002)056[0350:TEOCCA]2.0.CO;2.

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