Starting Chayote in Virginia
A while ago, I posted a recipe for chayote shoots, this unusual green that’s easy to grow and that is wonderfully silky in stir-fry and braised dishes. It makes good quiches too – a racy alternative to spinach or Swiss chard. You have probably seen the fruit in the exotic section of the supermarket. In the US it’s imported more than likely from Mexico. Green and vaguely pear shaped and sized, it’s in the squash family and looks like this:
There are more types of chayote around, some weight close to 2 pound and some are thorny with a more vigorous taste and a fleshier texture. But the smooth green smallish chayote is all that I have ever seen around here be at the supermarket or in Hispanic markets. You’ll have to travel to see and eat the other kind.
I ahve also never seen the greens for sale here, although they are really good – in many way a lot tastier than the mild (but versatile fruit). While I am trying to get fruit from my vines, I am under no illusion that’s practically a lost cause in the Virginia Northern Piedmont. Practically, mind you, which means I am still trying. It’s however a breeze (at least compared to other veggies) to grow chayote successfully as a leaf (and stem) vegetable.
Chayote needs a long frost free growing season to bear fruit. So what do you do in the mid-Atlantic? You start one or two in the fall (I have established than in January is not early enough), pot them, bring them to the greenhouse, and hope for the best. You see, this is my first year starting them so early.
But if you just want to grow them for the greens, then go to the supermarket (or Hispanic market) sometimes this winter and buy a couple of fruit (redundancy is good). Then put them in a warm place that gets light and let them sprout (sometimes they have even sprouted in the store). A sunny window is fine but not necessary until after it’s sprouted. You see, the chayote behaves unsually: the seeds inside the fruit germinates.
Should you try to take the soft-fleshed white seed out and dry it – like what you would do for most other denizens of the vegetable kingdom – you’d be doomed to failure. The seed sprouts from inside the fruit, using the fruit – I guess? – as its first source of nourishment.
The vine will sprout from the larger side of the chayote. It may take several weeks, but eventually a sturdy little snake of a vine with hints of tendrils will come out. The shoots have slight downy hair on them.
After a few days (or weeks), you’ll plant them, in a large pot in a very sunny window. The bigger the plant at transplanting, the faster you’ll be able to pick greens and the better your chance of getting some fruit in the fall. Although for me, so far, frost has come and killed the vine before the fruit matured. Baby chayotes are perfectly edible though!
If you have a warm sunny space able to accomodate a large pot, go ahead, start your chayote in the next few weeks. Otherwise wait until late March.
oh: a warning though, once the weather warms, the vines grows fast – and tall. As a matter of fact, you want to make sure you have a strong trellis for it. It can exceed 15 to 20 feet of growth in a season. Ofcourse, picking often helps to control it somewhat – or so I tell myself.
So try something new* in the kitchen garden. Sprout a chayote!
* Actually, what’s new is old again: according to food historian William Woy Weaver, chayote (aka vegetable pear, aka mirliton in Louisiana) used to be grown in the Southern US before the Civil War.
Next: Growing Chayote in Virginia
For Recipe on Chayote, try this post.