by Diana Duff Special To West Hawaii Today
Growing food is becoming increasingly appealing to Kona gardeners. When considering what to grow, we need to choose plants that grow and produce bountifully here. It also helps if their growth habit fits into our garden and their flavor fits into our personal palate preferences. Chayote squash can offer all this and more for many local gardeners.
Chayote is a vining member of the Curcubitaceae, or gourd, family. The vine can grow on the ground or onto any support, spreading as much as 20 feet from the roots. Chayote is a perennial tropical vegetable and a valuable food source that is cultivated today throughout the tropics. In addition to producing edible fruit nearly year round, chayote’s stems, tuberous roots, heart-shaped leaves and vining tendrils are also edible. Once the small, cream-colored flowers that appear beneath a leaf or branch are pollinated, they mature into the edible pear-shaped fruit.
Chayote is a native Mexican plant. It was an important staple in the diet of the Aztecs and its name is derived from the Aztec word chayotli. The Mayans ate the fruit as well as the starchy roots and added the stem shoots, as a green, to their bean dishes. Chayote remains an important ingredient in the Mexican diet today. Its widespread cultivation and integration into the cuisine of many Latin American countries occurred during the age of the Spanish conquest.
Chayote was one of the many foods introduced to Europe by early explorers of the South American tropics. Its popularity then spread to tropical regions of Asia and Africa. Today, you’ll often find it listed as an ingredient in Thai and Chinese soups and stir fries as well as African stews.
The plant was first recorded by modern botanists in the 18th century. By 1800, it was given the scientific name it holds today, Sechium edule. Because of its worldwide popularity, it has numerous common names including vegetable pear, choko, mirliton and pear squash, to name a few. In Hawaii, it is most often referred to as chayote, or pipinola.
The fruit resembles a large, ridged pear with a thin, light-green skin fused to the white flesh that contains a single large, flattened pit. The pears are usually 6 to 10 inches long and somewhat flattened with coarse wrinkled ridges running lengthwise. Several varieties of chayote grow well here. Some have smooth skin while others are pricklier. Color variations in the skin range from almost white to various shades of green. Despite small differences in appearance, chayote all have a similar crisp texture and mild flavor.
It is chayote’s mild flavor that makes it so versatile. The flesh is crisp, almost like a water chestnut or raw potato, with a bland taste that easily absorbs seasoning flavors. The chayote can be eaten raw, without peeling in salads, steamed and mashed or stuffed and baked. It also adapts well to pickling, frying and boiling.
In Hawaii, chayote is often used in recipes as a substitute for zucchini, which has numerous pests here. Chayote can also substitute for other summer squash, as well as for apples or pears.
Chayote not only takes on the flavors of spices and sauces readily but also adds bulk to soups and stews. Although most people are familiar with the fruit, the tuberous roots can be cooked and eaten like a yam. In many cultures, these roots also serve as inexpensive animal fodder. The young leaves, stems and tendrils are also edible and are called for in recipes from many cultures. The seed has a nutty flavor and is also consumed occasionally.
One-half cup of the squash contains only 15 calories, has a gram of protein and 3 grams of carbohydrate. It also contains about 8 percent vitamin C, is rich in amino acids and contains small amounts of iron and calcium.
Chayote has become popular throughout the U.S. and can be found in Latino grocery stores and other large markets. Finding local sources is best, as they can dry out, lose nutrition and become very wrinkled and tough if stored too long after harvest. Chayote will keep without refrigeration for a week or more, but it is best to refrigerate it for longer storage.
The leaves of the chayote vine have been used as a tea to help dissolve kidney stones as well as in the treatment of arteriosclerosis and hypertension. Both leaves and fruit are reported to have diuretic, cardiovascular and anti-inflammatory properties.
Chayote grows aggressively but is not considered an invasive plant in Hawaii. It produces fruit most of the year and each ripe fruit will put out roots for a new plant if left on the vine or on a counter for more than a week. It is easy to propagate from a ripe fruit and will thrive in a sunny location in soil that drains well. It can be susceptible to rot when grown in containers but, given plenty of room and something to climb on, the plant will keep food on your table nearly year round.
Another appealing quality of chayote is its resistance to attacks from insects and diseases. Very few disease problems are reported for chayote and insects seem to avoid healthy plants.
Other than occasional pruning to keep the vines in check and light nutritional balancing in the form of mulch, compost or an organic fertilizer, chayote presents few problems and little work other than harvest.
The best place to acquire a chayote plant may be from a farmer. Many farmers at local farm-direct markets grow chayote and would be glad to sell you a fruit you can use to start your own vine.
This is an easy-to-grow plant to include in your edible garden. Once it starts pumping out fruit, check the Internet for recipes in almost any cuisine you prefer or start making up your own.
Duff is a local organic farmer as well as a plant adviser and consultant.