Growing Chayote in Virginia
You know… “chayote” (sometimes spelled “chayotte”), also known as chouchou, chocko, christophine, mirliton, vegetable pear. You don’t know? Time for today’s lesson, then: Sechium edule, a member of the cucurbitacea family (or if you prefer a cousin of squashes and cucumber), originates from Mexico and Central America and was already cultivated there when the Spaniards arrived. The word chayote comes to us from a Spanish word derived from the word “hitzayotli” in the Nahuatl language where it designates both the plant and the fruit.
The plant is viviparous, as was discussed in the post on starting chayote, meaning you need a fruit to start the plant: the smooth large whitish seed (perfectly edible and considered a delicacy by the chayote connoisseur) must germinate inside the fruit.
Chayote is perennial in its native climate and in the tropical and subtropical areas of the world where it was exported and made itself at home (like here)- which is why you find it on the menus of cuisines as diverse as Vietnamese, Australian, Reunionese, Louisianan, Nigerian etc. In the mid-Atlantic area, it will be killed by a hard frost, although it will stand to a light one: in my garden it is killed by the same type of frost that kills my dahlia tops (another garden denizen that hails from Central America). If a plant were several years old it would have had a chance to form tuber-like roots, and like dahlias, would send new shoots up when more clement weather arrives. In the Northern Piedmont, though – as in the entire mid-Atlantic area – the winters are too harsh and the plant must be considered an annual.
Nonetheless, chayote is a vigorous plant… to say the least. The tendriled vine can climb well over 15 feet in a single growing season (over 25 feet in ideal conditions), so it needs a strong trellis or other sturdy support. It’s particularly attractive on a rustic arbor in the middle of the vegetable garden, creating a little shady shelter where you can sit and rest (ah!) from your weeding summer chores. For a more permanent and much more sophisticated-looking arbor, check this – in Northern California where I expect chayote could behave as a perennial, at least the milder years. Thanks Ed, for the link!
William Woys Weaver in his book “Heirloom Vegetable Gardening” states that you need two plants to have fruit. That’s not my experience. I have found that there are male & female flowers (very small & greenish white, although some cultivars have creamy yellow flowers) on the same plant and that they will produce fruit. The male flowers are bunched together at the tip of the flower cluster; the female flower is single and clearly recognized by its ovaries which are in the shape of the fruit (like other female squash flowers, actually). While you do not need two plants for fruiting, it’s however a prudent move to start several plants: every year, for me, one or two die after they germinate and before they have a chance to develop, which would set me back several precious weeks if I had to start a new plant after the first one dies. So I start several.
You start the plant as outlined here. You set up your trellis or arbor where you want the plant to grow. Give it as good a soil as you can afford: the better the soil, the bigger and healthier the plant. After danger of frost is passed, carefully transplant your started chayote, trying not to break off roots and entirely burying the old fruit. It would not hurt to have pre-warmed your soil for a few weeks by covering it with a closed cold-frame (or black plastic if that the method your prefer), since the chayote will appreciate the warmth. Give it full sun.
Wait a few weeks while it establishes its roots. To help it, water as needed and feed it liberally – preferably with copious amounts of compost. One day, you’ll notice the plant starts growing, and growing, and growing, which it will do until killed by frost. In my garden, it has been trouble free: no mildew, no bugs, no borers, and especially not the dreaded squash bugs and squash borers which have devastated some of my other squash or cucumber plantings at times. Yes, there was a little munching from the Japanese beetles, that’s about it for troubles. How about that?
William Woys Weaver also says that the plant will flower and set fruit when the days and the nights are about the same length – which makes sense given the chayote’s origins. For us in Virginia, that means March/April and September/October. My observations agree with his. However, in the spring, the plant will simply be too young to be able to have flowers (one day, though, I will attempt to grow it in a polytunnel and see what happens… Maybe, this?). So we are restricted to flowers in late summer/ early fall. And here is the rub: a frost is likely to come before the fruit mature which would be November/December, unless you are in a more Southern area where it ought to do quite well. Here in the mountainous area of Virginia, I have only be able to harvest fruit as big as my thumb nail. While perfectly good pickled or stir-fried, that’s a lot of time to wait for a lot of disappointment… if fruit is all you expect from the chayote.
But here is the good news: the young shoots are delicious! This is really why I grow chayote: for the shoots which I can pick from June until frost. Fruit is simply a bonus. To harvest, you simply break off the shoots (maybe the last foot or so of each) with the attached leaves: if it snaps off easily, it’s good to eat. If it’s too fibrous to eat, it will not break off cleanly, you are breaking it off too low on the vine. And do this often: the more shoots you snap off, the bushier you make the vine: it will send more shoots so you can pick more next week. As the leaves and the shoot mature, they get tough, so you may as well pick them young!
Briefly, here is the summary of the last two years of growing chayote in my garden:
- 2007: three plant planted out in May in a very nice rich bed (almost of their own if you don’t count the amaryllis and a few tomato plants) before I left for a three week trip. The plants had not grown much by early June (it was a cold May). By August despite a drought and no supplemental watering, they had taken over their wholly inadequate trellis (the same kind I give peas). Lots and lots of shoot stir-fry. I had to try to give it more support in the form of long sturdy branches to prop the initial netted trellis. Fruited in October, but fruit did not have time to mature. Vine killed November 11.
- 2008: In April, we build a much stronger trellis than the prior year using cherry branches, bamboo poles and sturdy cut grape vines – as shown on the pictures which were all taken in 2008. I set out two plants in very early May, one promptly dies. The remaining one grows fairly slowly, not being in great soil and it being fairly dry – again! By Mid-July the remaining plant has almost reached the top of the trellis, and I am picking shoots. August, it’s lush and starting to cover the sides and the top of my arbor. In September, the flowers are there. Again, the vines is killed in mid-November before the fruit have a chance to swell.
To prepare the shoots and young leaves, here is a basic recipe. I have since read that some people eat the tendrils. They are routinely discarded where I grew up (and where chayote has naturalized), but I wonder why now… this year, I will have to try the tendrils.
Again, according to William Woys Weaver, chayote was cultivated in the Southern United States prior to the Civil War which disrupted its cultivation. It’s called mirliton (merliton?) in Louisiana, in which cuisine it still has a place. Makes me wonder if people dug it up to eat it during the Civil War … as the mature tubers are edible and can be boiled, baked, steamed and are used in cakes & pies (the dry vines also make a very nice “straw” which was used to make hats in the 19th century).
It’s time to bring the chayote back! This vigorous, attractive, care-free and multi-purpose plant deserves a place in our temperate kitchen gardens too. Won’t you give it a try?