Trying Chaya: Introducing a Superfood in Madagascar to Address Food Insecurity 

Staff and their families at a Garden-managed protected area in Madagascar were invited to a chaya cooking demonstration. Photo by Chris Birkinshaw.

In many parts of Madagascar, crop farmers face a food shortage every year between harvests. To try to help with this issue of food insecurity, the Missouri Botanical Garden is starting a trial introducing a super food to farmers: chaya, a perennial spinach-like crop native to Central America. The hope is that once a few families adopt it, the crop will spread naturally and provide nourishment to subsistence farmers and their families in the time when they usually experience food shortages. 

Entrance to an area managed by the Missouri Botanical Garden in Analavelona, Madagascar. Photo by Robbie Hart.

The Garden in Madagascar 

The Missouri Botanical Garden has had a presence in Madagascar since the 1970s. In recent years, the Garden’s work has evolved to include conservation work in partnership with local communities in addition to our long-standing commitment to discovering and documenting Madagascar’s poorly known flora. The Missouri Botanical Garden now has more than 200 staff members in Madagascar. All but one are Malagasy.

Leaves of chaya, Cnidoscolus aconitifolius. Photo by Nathan Kwarta.

What is chaya?   

Sometimes called the spinach tree, chaya, Cnidoscolus aconitifolius, is a drought-deciduous shrubs that can grow nearly 20-feet in height with large leaves. It is believed to have originated in the Yucatan Peninsula.  

Indigenous people in Mexico and Central America have used chaya for centuries, domesticating the crop in pre-Columbian times. It is widely used in Mayan cuisine. Its leaves continue to be used today for medicine and food.  As a food source, it is rich in protein and contains 10 times the amount of vitamin C as an orange. It is also a great source of calcium, magnesium, iron, proteins, and antioxidants. 

A close up of a dish during a chaya cooking demonstration. Photo by Chris Birkinshaw.

Why chaya? 

Garden President Peter Wyse Jackson first suggested the idea of promoting chaya as a food source in Madagascar. 

Chaya’s nutritional benefits make it an appealing choice to help nourish Malagasy farming families during the hardship between harvests, and it is easy to propagate as cuttings from sections of stem and can grow in a wide range of conditions and is tolerant of drought. It can be continuously harvested, serving as a food supplement at any time it is needed. 

And, it tastes good! Leaves boiled for 10 minutes taste like spinach with a fattier flavor. 

A chaya tree grows at a Garden site in Madagascar. Photo by Fidy Ratovoson.

It’s not native…could it become invasive? 

Chaya, at least the commonly cultivated varieties, rarely, if ever, produces viable seeds and is not at risk of becoming an invasive species.  

Garden staff get ready to enjoy chaya after a cooking demonstration. Photo by Chris Birkinshaw.

Starting with staff 

To introduce the plant to Malagasy people, the Garden started with its own staff.  

Site-based staff, including nursery workers, forest rangers, and education officers, from the Agnalazaha Forest Protected area, which the garden comanages, were invited to attend a cooking demonstration. Fidy Ratovoson, Project Manager of the Agnalazaha Forest Protected Area, is an avid home cook, watched chaya cooking demonstrations online to prepare and adapted these recipes to the context of rural Madagascar. He prepared the leaves in three ways: with onions and tomatoes; with onions, tomatoes, and eggs; and with onions, tomatoes, soy sauce and meat. 

All staff were invited to take a cutting of the plant home with them, and after trying the dishes, all were eager to secure their sample. 

Garden staff get a close up look of a chaya cooking demonstration with Fidy Ratovoson. Photo by Chris Birkinshaw.

What are the next steps? 

If the trial with staff in Agnalazaha is successful, the Garden will work to distribute the plant more widely through its network across the country. Rural communities at the 11 conservation sites the Garden co-manages with local communities will be the first targeted areas. 

The “spinach tree,” also known as chaya, growing in the Climatron at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Photo by Nathan Kwarta.

See the spinach tree at the Missouri Botanical Garden 

While our horticulture staff would not appreciate visitors harvesting its leaves, if you’re curious to see the spinach tree in person, look for it in the Climatron during your next visit to the Missouri Botanical Garden. 

Cooking with chaya  

Watch a chaya cooking demonstration:

Catherine Martin
Senior Public Information Officer

Many thanks to Chris Birkinshaw, Fidy Ratovoson, and Peter Wyse Jackson for expert information that contributed to this post.

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