My daughter texted me from a Tennessee supermarket last spring, asking, “What the heck is chayote?”
Knowing it was a trendy food that year, I informed her that chayote is a squash-like fruit in the gourd family, and jokingly told her to buy one so she could be on-trend. But she thought it was so ugly, it couldn’t possibly be good.
However, many people think otherwise. Chayote has a long, roaming history around the world, and, whether it’s planted or purchased, this fruit can become a nutritional star in a variety of meals. In 2018, Pinterest searches escalated 76 percent for chayote. It’s becoming a more common food to see in grocery stores and recipes, so I decided to join the growing community of chayote fans and try my hand at growing and cooking my own.
Native to Mesoamerica
Chayote (Sechium edule) is native to Mesoamerica, but no archaeological records exist of the plant’s exact origins. Its closest wild relatives, S. compositum and S. hintonii, are found in southern Mexico and Guatemala, and it seems chayote was domesticated in that region in pre-Columbian times.
As chayote spread throughout Central America and the Caribbean in the 1700s, its many names reflected local languages. It was called “chayote” in the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America. In the Caribbean, where French was prominent, it was and still is called christophine and mirliton. And, in Jamaica, chayote is known as chocho. As chayote found its way to South America and Europe in the 1700s and 1800s, its many names continued to increase. In Italy, people called chayote pimpinela, and in Hawaii, it’s called pimpinola. From there, chayote radiated out to Africa, Asia, and Australia, where it’s called choko.
In the 18th century, Jamaica exported chocho to the East Coast of the U.S., where it also became a popular garden vegetable and staple food throughout the Deep South. Because it needs such a long growing season, it was never grown north of Charleston, South Carolina. Unfortunately, the Civil War put an end to its cultivation, but in the late 1800s, chayote was rebranded in the U.S. as a “vegetable pear” for commercial viability. A dozen cultivars sported evidence of genetic diversity, some white, pale-green, or dark-green; some with spines, some without; some with deep ridges, and others smooth-skinned.
Costa Rica is the main commercial grower today, followed by Guatemala, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic, in that order. As with most produce cultivated for large markets, there’s less diversity and more uniformity. However, the small farms of Central America and the Caribbean continue to grow chayote cultivars that exhibit the fruit’s broad genetic diversity.
Nutritious and Versatile Cucurbit
Because most of the chayote in the U.S. is imported, we eat only the fruit, but the entire plant is used where it’s locally grown. The fruit, which is treated more like a vegetable, is a versatile and mild-tasting cucurbit that makes a good substitute for squash, cucumbers, or potatoes. Mainly, it’s eaten for its crunchy texture. Chayote can be eaten raw and grated into salads, or cut up for dips and salsa, and it can also be roasted, steamed, boiled, baked, mashed, and pickled.
Each part of the world enjoys chayote in different ways. It’s stuffed and baked at harvest time in fall in New Orleans. In Latin America, chayote is cooked with cilantro, hot chiles, and garlic in soups and stews, or sweetened as pie filling for dessert. The root is a tuber similar to a potato or yam, and can be cooked au gratin or as french fries. In Asian countries, the fruit and the shoots are used in stir-fries, chop suey, and soup. In India, specifically, chayote is cooked in curries and as a side with eggs, fish, or mutton, and is grown for livestock fodder as well.
This fruit isn’t just enjoyable, it’s also highly nutritious. Chayote is low in calories (approximately 39 per serving) and high in fiber. It has no cholesterol and low amounts of unhealthy fats, and it’s high in vitamins C and K, thiamin, riboflavin, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and choline. Its high folate content makes it a healthy food for pregnant women to help guard against congenital disorders. The seed — which is also edible — is high in amino acids.
Medicinally, chayote leaves are steeped as a tea to help treat kidney stones, arteriosclerosis, and hypertension, and an infusion of the fruit is used as a diuretic. The fruit and leaves of chayote may also have anti-inflammatory and cardiovascular health properties.
Chayote is a perennial vine that can grow to 50 feet in length. It needs a sturdy support system, such as a trellis, arbor, fence, or even a tree, to hold the weight of the dozens of fruits. A horizontal trellis makes harvesting easier. A first-year vine can produce 30 chayote fruits, with 80 in the second year, and more in subsequent years.
Yields depend on soil fertility, hours of direct sun, root competition, and trellising methods. That said, chayote isn’t fussy; it’s prolific even with neglect. It doesn’t need a lot of water, though, and tends to get waterlogged easily.
Few pests and diseases plague chayote. In the Deep South, anthracnose can be a problem if the weather is cool and damp at planting time. Hawaiian chayote farmers may struggle with typical squash pests, such as cucumber beetles, squash bugs, and vine borers.
Although the vines will live for eight years, production drops off after the third. Chayote is viviparous, meaning the single seed germinates in the fruit when overripe. Sometimes, they’ll sprout right on the vine! But it’s easy to grow new plants from ripe fruit to keep yields high. This also allows farmers to maintain the local, acclimated strain.
Chayote needs 150 frost-free days to produce fruit. It flowers 110 to 120 days after planting, and about 30 days later, the fruit will be ready for harvest. It keeps for a couple of months at 45 degrees Fahrenheit and 85 to 90 percent relative humidity. At the end of the season, the vines can be cut back to a few inches above ground. In cooler areas, the tubers can be dug and stored for winter.
Chayote Growing from Fruit
I started an iffy chayote-growing experiment in 2019 in Zone 5 at 7,000 feet elevation in the southern Rocky Mountains. My plan was to use a large nursery container in my hoop house and let the chayote vine sprawl along the purlins. The greenhouse is warm well into October, so I figured there would be enough time to get it to flower and fruit.
Because chayote is viviparous, you don’t buy seed to grow it. I didn’t know this when I got started. After much online searching, I learned I needed to buy the fruit to sprout it. I didn’t recall having seen it for sale anywhere, so I set out one day to shop.
I first looked in our two small organic markets, but I was surprised not to find this trendy food there. I then went to a supermarket, and, thankfully, there were a half-dozen in a small basket in the far corner of the produce section. I bought two for 79 cents each, brought them home, and placed them on the shelf above the kitchen range. It was March 4.
Two weeks later on March 17, I noticed a sprout coming out the bottom of Squash 1. I’d been watching for it to come out the stem end!
Squash 2 was growing more slowly and didn’t get potted up until mid-April. Not long after that, both of them stopped growing altogether. I pulled them out of their pots in mid-May and discovered that neither of them had roots! All that vigorous growth came entirely from the seed.
I ended up buying six more chayotes at different times and got mixed results. What was most interesting, though, was that each chayote plant grew differently. There was no predictability in how long each took to sprout. I purposely bought some older ones for faster sprouting, but that didn’t always matter. Each chayote was on its own timetable, so planning for potting up and planting outside was a challenge.
I lucked out on Squash 5, which, after being planted properly, sprouted roots in only four days! The roots radiated out from where the sprout met the soil. Root and radicle had the same source; I’d never seen that before. Sadly, Squash 5 didn’t grow well, so it was eventually composted.
Six months and eight chayotes after I began, I felt successful, even though I didn’t get a crop. I armed myself with knowledge this year, and I’m not giving up. Still, I wanted to taste this on-trend food, so I went to the store and bought some to cook instead of sprout. Since then, chayote has become a regular food in my house. Hopefully I’ll be able to eat my own this year!
Enjoy chayote’s flavor adaptability and crunchy texture in this Southwestern Calabacitas Recipe.
Nan Fischer writes about gardening and the history of food from her home in Taos, New Mexico. She owns a small nursery, Nannie Plants, and is the founder of the Taos Seed Exchange.