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:

chayote-on-plate

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.

chayote-sprouting-2

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.

chayote-sprouting

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.

18 comments

  1. Matt says:

    I’ve seen the fruit countless times but never the shoots. I’ve never actually tried the fruit itself. I’ll have to look through my cookbook for ideas.
    By the way, I’m really enjoying reading through all of your posts. I can’t wait to see what you do next!

  2. sylvie says:

    Thanks Matt.
    Chayote is mild tasting; some people bring extra flavor by adding a little ham, or a few shrimp. It’s often prepared in stir fry, gratin with white sauce, salad (steamed or boiled first, then sliced and dressed) and soup. It’s firmer than zucchini and less watery. If you try it, please do report on your impressions and what you did with it.

  3. Cool! I didn’t even know you could do this! I’ll have to try it.

  4. […] For instructions on how to grow chayote, read this post. […]

  5. Ed bruske says:

    Now that’s a great idea. I love chayote roasted with carrots. What kind of plant does it turn out to be?

  6. sylvie says:

    Ed: It’s a large vining/climbing plant, great for a rustic arbor or a strong and large trellis. I am writing on post on growing & harvesting chayote (with pictures) and will post that shortly.

  7. […] plant is viviparous, as was discussed in the post on starting chayote, meaning you need a fruit to start plant as the smooth large whitish seed (perfectly edible and […]

  8. jeremy says:

    I hear that to get Chayote to bear fruit you must plant at least two. While each will have male and female flowers, the plants are unable to pollinate themselves.

  9. sylvie says:

    Thanks for stopping by Jeremy. I had read that too from some authors, but my experience – at least with the chayote I was able to get in the store – proved that you can have fruit with one plant only. My climate just did not allow the fruit to mature. Some authors also state that one plant is enough. So maybe it does depend on the varietal?

    Sylvie

  10. Deanna says:

    I put them in vegetable soup, cut into chunks like potatoes. It is a nice mild flavored addition.

  11. Paul says:

    Good Morning Sylvie!

    I just found your site and I am enjoying it thoroughly! I started two chayote plants in pots last fall and they started growing in my upstairs “garden” room under flourescent lighting set up with timers. It has been quite an experience. Ultimately, one plant died in the pot, but the other was successfully transplanted into my yard with an 8 foot long and four foot high fence to grow onto. Well, the stretch of 90 and 100 degree days this summer almost killed it. However, after recovering from that, in the last few days, it has grown little clusters of buds all over its length. Today, when I went out to visit my garden and the monarch butterfly caterpillars, I noticed something different. A chayote fruit slightly larger than a pencil eraser! It’s funny, but I got so excited because I was going to pull it out weeks ago, but my wife convinced me not to. Boy! Am I grateful to her! Anyway, it’s growing fruit now. I was of the understanding that I should be harvesting the fruit in September. Here it is in the middle of October and it’s just starting to form. I may have to enclose the area in plastic to heat it up some. Do you have any thoughts on helping to ensure a harvest? I’ve already given it blood meal and garden tone organic fertilizer before the fruits showed up.
    Thanks,
    Paul

  12. sylvie says:

    Hi Paul – sorry for the delay in posting your comment and my answer. Chayote sure want room to grow don’t they! I am not surprised that your plant perked up with cooler temperature: it does not like really hot weather. On tropical Reunion Island it grows best between 2,400 and 3,500 feet: never a frost but cooler temperature and more cloud cover. And it does like plenty of moisture (but a well drained soil nonetheless). The tiny fruit are edible whole (stir-fry or pickle) and don’t forget that the shoots and young leaves are edible too. (see http://www.laughingduckgardens.com/ldblog.php/2008/12/12/chayote-by-any-other-name/). It will take several months for the fruit to develop to a good size, so you must somehow protect the vine and fruit from frost. Reemay is not sufficient, you almost need to build a little greenhouse or hoophouse above it – and keep it totally frost free. I am not sure where in Virginia you are – but if you are on the coast, in one of the milder areas, you will surely have more of a chance to grow a fruit to respectable size than I in my mountain. Maybe one day I will plant one directly in the greenhouse (I have not yet done it because I am afraid it will take over). Good luck!

  13. Sigrid says:

    Hi Sylvie,
    I live in California and started a chayote in my yard about 7 years ago. It grows in the shade behind my garage, on a long fence with a trellis attached. I hardly ever water it and it’s growing in clay soil. Here the summers are very very dry so who knows where it’s getting water from. It’s incredibly prolific and comes back stronger each year. I haven’t tried the tubers yet because I don’t know when is the best time to harvest them. And haven’t really cooked the shoots either. I love the fruit though. I probably get 50-70 chayotes/year and eat them in all different forms. My latest favorite is pickled. wow what great texture. I haven’t yet read your recipe site, but ended up here because I wanted to have a nice explanation for a friend of how to grow the plant and take care of it. For a quick meal I peel the chayote and slice thin then saute with some salt in olive oil so they get nice and caramelized. Then add whatever seasoning and maybe some cheese or cream. Favorite seasoning combos are lemon/mint, Zatarains/cream, tomato/shallot/cheese/spices.
    This past fall I made a great southwestern stew with cubed chayote/tomatillos/white beans and served it with corn tortillas, hot sauce, queso fresco, sour cream, celantro and limes. Incredible. Thanks for a great site.

  14. sylvie says:

    Hi Sigrid – it’s funny how people keep coming to that the post on growing chayote. I am sure it roots are finding a cool spot under your garage foundation – it certainly likes where you have put it! And yes, the fruit are very very versatile. My mother – who lives ion the tropics – makes all kinds of things with them: stir fry, baked, steamed, boiled, gratin, soup, stews, salads, and even cakes.

    What are “Zatarains”? is that another name for “Zatar” the Middle Eastern spice/herb mixture, or something else altogether?

  15. […] shoots – a wonderful summer cooking green. For more details, read those prior posts on starting chayote and on growing chayote in Virginia. Next: ginger needs to be started. Chayote sprouted and […]

  16. marywinters says:

    Zatarains is a seasoning blend

  17. chuck says:

    Mayas in the high lands of Guatemala call it Wiskil.. Which is the common name in the whole country…

  18. sylvie says:

    Thank you, Chuck!

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