Tree spinach, also known as Chaya or Mayan Miracle plant is one of the most low-maintenance sources of continual leafy green vegetables you can grow in the tropics. If you’re looking for an easy plant to start on your homestead, plant some chaya.

Growing Chaya or tree spinach in Hawaii is so easy the only real issues you might have are too much moisture or the tree growing too tall. Since this plant is native to dry areas of Mexico and is very drought tolerant, you likely won’t need to water it much after it has been established.

These ‘trees’ (which are actually classified as a bush) can grow up to 20 ft tall. You probably don’t want that, so the biggest maintenance you’ll need to do is bi-yearly pruning. There’s an easy way to skip the pruning altogether, though, I’ll get into that a little later on.

Why grow chaya on your tropical homestead

There are lots of reasons to grow chaya in a permaculture garden, but here are some of the most obvious ones:

  1. A continual source of leafy greens
  2. Low-maintenance plant
  3. The edible leaves are high in iron, Vitamin A, calcium, and are a good source of protein, too.
  4. Grows year-round in the tropics.
  5. Few issues with pests or diseases.

Tree Spinach is a continual source of leafy greens

While lettuce, kale, or other leafy greens may grow faster by comparison – a few months compared to 10-12 months with a new chaya tree – chaya will give you a continual source of leafy greens from a single plant for years.

You won’t need to put in new seeds, plant seedlings, or start new beds every few months with chaya. Once you’ve planted tree spinach and waited approximately 12 months for it to establish and start producing leaves, then you will be getting fresh, healthy greens regularly from the same plant.

Chaya is a low-maintenance plant

Chaya is a drought-tolerant and hearty bush that survives in dry regions of Mexico but thrives in locations like Hawaii. We get enough regular rain in Hawaii that your chaya plant may not need regular watering.

The only ‘maintenance’ you need to do regularly is to prune your plant. But even that is so easy, you don’t even need shears, just break off a weak (not supporting) limb to collect the leaves for eating. I’m serious, the branches should snap off smoothly from the base and not damage the overall structure of the shrub.
There you go, you’ve pruned your chaya a little.

If you don’t prune your chaya 2-3 times a year, you may find it grows too tall and you cannot easily reach the leaves! (I know, what a terrible problem to have).

But seriously, research shows that you can prune this guy back more than 50% of its foliage and it won’t damage the main plant. It will do just fine (and usually end up growing out wider instead of higher afterward). 

Check to see that the soil isn’t rock hard, but a bigger concern with chaya is soaked roots (they will begin to rot) so opt on the side of dry rather than too wet, especially with a well-established tree.

Health benefits of chaya

Another reason to plant tree spinach is because it’s so healthy. It’s packed with vitamin A, calcium, and is high in iron, protein, and fiber.

It also contains natural phytochemicals that are being researched because of their cancer-preventative properties.

This means you can feel good about eating plenty of these green veggies.

Grows year-round in the tropics

While chaya won’t do well in temperate climates and should be moved indoors to survive harsh winters, it produces edible green leaves year-round in the tropics.

Disease and pest-resistant

To piggyback on being ‘low maintenance’ another feature of tree spinach is that it doesn’t face disease or pests here in the tropics. Possibly because it has no native pests or issues here in Hawaii, this plant will grow without you needing to worry about spraying pesticides or chemicals to keep it healthy.

How to grow chaya or tree spinach in Hawaii

Okay, so if I’ve convinced you to grow chaya on your tropical homestead, let’s get into the basics of how to grow it.

Start from Cuttings

Chaya is grown from cuttings. 

All you need are a few cuttings from a healthy chaya plant that are 8-20 inches long. 

All leaves should be removed so the plant can divert energy to growing roots before producing more leaves.

Go for cuttings that have 2 or more nodes on them, and try to ensure the nodes are planted under soil to encourage root growth.

Dig a deep hole

Chaya is susceptible to 

  1. Root rot
  2. Root spiraling

To avoid these issues, make sure you plant chaya in a deep, wide hole with plenty of space for the roots to spread wide. Also, water only when the soil appears dry. It should not be wet – only moist – to avoid root rot.

If you’re planting your chaya cuttings in pots to start off, be ready to move them before you have issues with root spiraling.

Prepare the soil

This means making sure it is well-draining. Do not plant in clay soil and plant far away from water-loving plants.

I wouldn’t plant this side-by-side with banana trees, for instance.

Add sand, or even some gravel to your soil to make it drain enough for healthy tree spinach.

One thing tree spinach does need is nitrogen. Try to ensure that when you give a dose of compost to your chaya plant a few times a year, perhaps with a bit of extra ‘compost tea’ or some dead fish to increase the nitrogen content of your soil.


Don’t worry about neglecting your chaya. Once your cutting has formed roots and you’ve planted it in the ground, just be patient. It often takes a full year for it to grow enough limbs to produce plenty of leaves on your dinner table.

However, remember that once it does, the plant will produce continually. Be prepared to either prune your tree a few times a year.  Be a little aggressive when harvesting the leaves to eat, or give your friends and neighbors plenty of cuttings to start their own chaya plants.

Water as needed

Don’t overwater your chaya. 

Seriously, during the rainy season, you won’t need to give it any additional water.

The only time you should pay attention to moisture is when you’ve just made your cuttings and are waiting for them to establish roots; then the soil should be moist, but not soaked.

Growing Tips


Chaya plants actually prefer shade, so feel confident planting them under some tall trees. Fresh cuttings or new transplants (out of pots) may need a bit of additional sunlight to get their roots established, though, so don’t put them in complete shade.

But don’t worry if you plant them in lots of sun, too. Chaya is the epitome of an adaptable, easy-to-please plant.


One thing to keep in mind is that chaya pulls nitrogen from the soil. You’ll get a nice addition of it to your diet when you eat the greens, but your soil will be slowly depleted, too.

There are two easy ways to balance this out:

  1. put a yearly dump of compost and fertilizer that is high in nitrogen around your chaya plants,
  2. Plant your tree spinach in the shade of an ice cream bean tree, or other nitrogen-fixer (a plant that adds nitrogen to the soil). The bonus here is that it also offers shade to your chaya plant.

Harvesting and Cooking with Chaya

How to Harvest

While the easiest way to harvest chaya is to snap off a ‘runner branch’ (don’t mess with the supporting, middle branches of the shrub), all you want to consume are the leaves.

As you pinch the leaves off, you’ll see a sticky-milky-looking substance around the stems. This is normal and occurs in all varieties of chaya, including wild and cultivated.

While the sap isn’t dangerous, some people with sensitive skin feel itchy after touching it. If this is you, consider wearing gloves when harvesting chaya or washing your hands immediately after collecting the leaves.

The sticky stuff is only in the stems, not the leaves themselves.


So, there are some natural-occurring toxins in chaya that you need to make sure are eliminated before consumption.

The most popular way is through boiling – a simple 4-5 minute boil is all that’s needed to ensure your chaya is safe to eat.

Other methods include finely chopping it and trying it in a pan.

Either way, never eat chaya raw. 

Since the leaves are a bit tough, it is a good idea to chop finely anyway, whether you intend to boil or fry these delicious greens, they just taste better that way.

Chaya Recipes

You can use tree spinach in any recipe that calls for kale, spinach, or Swiss chard. 

I’ve had it for breakfast (finely chopped leaves, fried up with onions), served with some sunny-side-up eggs.

It’s also delicious in curries or stews (especially if you use fresh coconut milk – these go so well together!). But I definitely recommend boiling the leaves first, to soften them up and give them a lighter texture.

Another family favorite is creamy potato and chaya soup on a rainy day.