Growing Chayote in Virginia

Growing what?

chayote-shoot-2007-08-21-0301

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!

chayote-female-flower-2008-10-09

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.

chayote-2008-05-early

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.

chayote-2008-07-15

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.

chayote-2008-09-19

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?

38 comments

  1. Vanille says:

    En voilà une belle treille de chouchou !
    Is that a bench I see strategically placed under the naked trellis ?

  2. sylvie says:

    certainly, a bench to rest from the labors of the garden. At least in theory. In practice it ends up with seedling trays waiting to be transplanted… or as a convenient gathering place for tools.
    Sylvie

  3. Pam says:

    You might try digging up the tuberous roots and storing them over winter. If your plant got a start from these, instead of from a new fruit each year, it woul have a headstart.

    Still, not sure but that the plants flower only when days are shorter (tropical trait) so you might not be more likely to get fruit by overwintering the roots indoors. Here in San Francisco, the plant usually bears fruit in November and December.

    I was told by a woman from Guatemala that in Guatemala City, there are huge, long plants along the streets and that in summer she was used to eating only the tendrils. She pitied me that I had only one plant and not enough tendrils to make a full dish without adding some young stems and leaves.

  4. sylvie says:

    Pam – thanks for stopping by! It’s great to hear from another chayote enthusiast – and professional gardener, at that!

    Unlike you SF climate, my Virginia Piedmont climate does not give me enough time for the vines to form tubers. I did try to lift the root mass and store them in the green house two years ago, but the root network was so extensive (although very little tubers) that they did not survive. Believe me, I will continue trying – if only because chayote is a childhood memory. I grew up in the tropics and we ate the fruit, the shoots and the tubers. Not the tendrils though, so I will have to try that. Thanks for the tip.

    If I were able to have a mature plant in our early spring, it should flower then, and bear fruit throughout the summer. That’s the theory at least. Which means I might have to grow it in a greenhouse or polytunnel… but a a mature plant takes so much room!!! as I say, I’ll keep trying….

    How do you like to eat your chayotes?

  5. Raji S says:

    I live in NC and am interested in growing the chayotte squash . We have a problem with rabbits. Do they eat the squash plant ?
    Thanks in advance.
    Raji S

  6. sylvie says:

    Hello Raji. Chayote squash have proven quite trouble free in my garden and not attacked by insect pests that bother other squash plants such as zucchini or winter squash. My trellis being inside the rabbit-proof fence, I do not know if rabbits would eat the plant or not. Have they eaten your other squash plants? if not, it’s probably a good indication that the may leave the chayote alone. They certainly have not eaten any of my winter squash plants (which were planted outside the fence).

    If you are really concerned about rabbit, I suggest that you plant the chayote inside a little fence made of chicken wire or other fairly small opening wire mesh, maybe 2 feet high and a foot or two in diameter, held upright and in place with a few sticks. In that manner, the plant can grow inside the enclosure and grab onto your trellis while its main stems are protected from rabbit depredation. Make sure to provide plenty of grwing space and a big trellis for the vine. They really really grow fast and far.

    Chayote is quite easy and a good crop if you eat the shoots like I do. Who knows, in NC you may even be able to ripen a fruit crop! Good luck, and please tell us how your chayote growing goes. I’d love to hear about it.

  7. […] sylvie put an intriguing blog post on Rappahannock Cook & Kitchen Gardener » Growing Chayote in VirginiaHere’s a quick excerptThe plant is viviparous, as was discussed in the post on starting chayote, meaning you need a fruit to start plant so the smooth large whitish seed (perfectly edible and considered a delicacy by the chayote connoisseur) can germinate … […]

  8. kasjh says:

    my chayote has roots and i opened it up to plant the pit since it looked like the outer skin was going bad.
    I put it in soil and I’m wondering if it will survive.

  9. sylvie says:

    Hello, kasjh. Thanks for stopping by. Live and see! Truly I don’t know. From my observation, the fruit acts as nourishment for the sprouting plant, and I plant the whole thing once I see the green sprout coming out. I would guess that if roots were formed already and you were careful when transplanting it, then it should live. Won’t you report back on it for everybody’s edification?

  10. Sonya says:

    Sylvie,
    Thanks for your informative article. I usually ignore the chayote in the supermarket, but just bought some because they are low carb (but $1 each) and have been researching whether I need to peel them and if I can eat the seeds and found your site. Seems that the answers are no and yes. Now I’m wondering if I can grow them. I live in southwestern Arizona and we are having a terrible problem with pocket gophers. They have destroyed several large agave, yuccas and cacti in our yard and who knows what else they are working on. From your and other descriptions of the tuberous roots of the chayote, it sounds like I would be feeding the gophers if I could get the chayote past one year. Hadn’t thought about the rabbits, but I guess that would be another pest that I’ll have to combat (much more easily). I love the idea of being able to eat the leaves and stems, too; which might be all I’ll get if the gophers kill it before the fruit ripens.

  11. sylvie says:

    Hello Sonya – where I grew up, people who wanted a quick-detox diet would go on a diet of boiled chayotes and steamed chayotes for a couple of days. No more than 2 or 3 days. The old-timers swore by it.

    The seeds are definitively edible. Peeling depends on the kind you get. It’s unnecessary to peel the kind we get on the East coast: they are small, with a thin thornless skin. For the ones that need to be peeled (because the skin in thick and/or thorny) , it’s better to boil or stem them first, and then peel. They otherwise give off a substance that can be irritating to the hands (like butternut squash)

    If you are concerned about gopher going for the root, and if you soil is fairly easy to dig, you could dig a largei-ish hole, line with with wire mesh, refill, plant your sprouted chayote, and voila!

    How cold are your winters? If they are mild, chayote will behave as a perennial – otherwise, you’ll have to plant every year.

    Let us know if you try and if it works for you.

  12. diane says:

    I live on the northshore of lake ponchartrain in Louisiana. I have planted 2 mirlitons in a raised,contained bed with miracle grow garden soil. I have babied these 2 plants like they were my first born and they have grown great against and up my fence. But, now they are getting yellow on the leaves close to the ground. I have been very careful not to overwater or fertilize too much. They get full sun too. I do not see any bugs. Any Ideas? Thanks!

  13. sylvie says:

    Diane – might you be overfeeding them? Are you fertilizing at all? if you are, that might be a problem since you planted in miracle grow garden soil. Also check for aphids on the underside of leaves: they suck the juice of the leaves, leaving them yellow. They could well be the cause of the yellow leaves, especially if the plants are growing fast due to fertilization: fast growth makes for soft growth which is attractive to aphids. If you have aphids, just rub them off, or if pick up and destroy the affected leaves. Stop fertilizing all together. Leave the chayote alone: it does not want cuddling (in my experience). It may appear slow growing at once, but it will take off. And then some. Your Louisiana climate is probably near ideal for them.

  14. claudette says:

    I live on the border of VA and NC. I am growing my chayotes in a large pot. I placed a high circular trellis within the pot to hold up the vines and hopefully I’ll be able to winter the vines in my sunroom. After reading about how large the vines will grow, am worried about that large pot toppling over at some point. Anyhow, if my plan works, maybe I’ll have a mature plant to set out come Spring 2010.

  15. sylvie says:

    claudette, I started one late last summer in a large pot that I overwintered in the greenhouse. It survived but it was not happy – by the end of the winetr, I was not sure it was going to make it, that’s how sad iot look. But I did transplant it outside this spring, and the plant is bigger than the ones I started in late winter. I am still not going to get fruit from it in my climate, just leaves and shoots for picking earlier than the ones started this year.

    Let us all know how it works out for you. Looks like many people are willing to try chayote!

  16. claudette says:

    Do you have a recipe you can give us for cooking the shoots and tendrils? I have one I use in cooking the fruit, but never tried the shoots and tendrils. Also, what part is the “tuber?” I know the fruit, the shoots and the tendrils, but cannot figure out what is meant by the “tuber.”

    By the way, the Japanese Beetle are truly enjoying the leaves! Agh…

  17. sylvie says:

    Hi Claudette, there is a link for a recipe for young leaves and shoots toward the end of the post, but here is the link:
    http://www.laughingduckgardens.com/ldblog.php/2008/12/12/chayote-by-any-other-name/
    Tendrils I have not done yet, I only have heard they are edible.

    The tubers are the fleshy parts of the roots (like dahlia tubers), but they are unlikely to develop unless the chayote vine has a chance to perennialize. Not in my climate, and probably not in yours either…

    Japanese beetles are enjoying the leaves of the raspberries here, but leaving the chayote alone. Go figure!

  18. Hector Reyes says:

    Great information about this noble vegetable. I used to plant it about 11 years ago in the Tokyo outskirts. Now that I am back in the same place I plan on planting them again in april. I was told that it is good to fight diabetes.

  19. […] common vegetable on Reunion: the young leaves and shoots, the fruit and tubers are all  eaten. While I can grow the greens in my Piedmont Virginia garden, my growing season is not long enough for the vine to produce fruit. So I buy my chayotes at the […]

  20. Old McGrama says:

    Hi. I was given this little funny looking pear thing buried in among some other fruits and HAD to know what it was! Thanks for the information! Fortunately it had a commercial sticker on it so I had a name to go by. It is still firm and probably good to eat, but why waste it! I am going to let it grow! I too am in Arizona, about 5,000+ feet though, so I may end up having to replant. Starting indoors isn’t a problem though and I have plenty of room. My doctor says I have to be on a low carb diet so my beloved potatoes are out! I am always looking for substitutes and love vining plants too! I try to always plant beautiful things that produce food and this looks PERFECT! Thanks for all the good information, and I will be sure to try tendrils too. I will be going out to the feed shed to dig through the fruit box again to see if there are any more… This is great! Thank you for publishing your findings! I was planning on starting a blog for my goats, etc. and “farming” and was wondering if I could put up a link referring to this site? Thank you again!

  21. sylvie says:

    Glad to be of help Old McGrama. Have fun with the chayote! Mine have finally sprouted inside and will be planted it out as soon as the danger of heavy frost is past. Best wishes for the new blog endeavor too, and of course, you may refer to my blog! Come back and let us know how chayote grew for you! It would be fun to have reports from different parts of the country.

  22. […] 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 […]

  23. rosario says:

    My friend gave me a sprouting chayote in Dec. I set it by the kitchen window whereit is vigorously growing, I am just waiting for the weather to warm up and set it out. I wonder if the 4 months that it stayed inside will count toward the long months required for it to bear fruit. Can’t wait to see what happens.

  24. sylvie says:

    Let us know if yours bear fruit rosario (and where you are located). If nothing else, try the tender young shoots & leaves: they are wonderful stir fried.

  25. cil says:

    My chayote was planted last year along the fence, here in Florida. It gets a certain length, with two shoots, looks great but turns yellow first, then brown and the long shoot dies off from the seed part of the plant in the ground. I now have one good side of the shoot growing with yellow flowers, and am afraid the same thing will happen, turn yellow, brown and die off. Any suggestions? I will check for bugs, but this keeps happening. It looks great, and then bam….yellow then brown and withered….thank you so much.

  26. sylvie says:

    Cil – just two thoughts for you: too much watering? not enough sun?

  27. tom says:

    please let me know when i am expect to get any fruit from my chyote. i am in texas, planted in early march they are at least 20 feet in lenght but not a single bloom! i am just wondering i gotten a male chyote vine! thank you in advance for any head up.

  28. sylvie says:

    Tom, it is my understanding that the vines blossom when day & night are about the same length – so around March and then again around September. You will need several months of frost free weather to have fruit though. Best wishes

  29. Dan says:

    Hi I grow chayotes in toronto canada which is much colder than Virginia. I get about 50 or more fruit on each vine. This year I planted 5 vines and have given away many to others for planting. The trick is to plant the chayote indoors in late December or January. It is a tropical/subtropical fruit so starting the plant indoors will trick it into maturing on time. While instead it is important to prune the plant back until late March and then let it grow until transplanting. This year I starting some mid December and some late December. I transplanted near the end of May. They usually start fruiting around September but to my pleasant surprise I am getting mature fruit starting mid July.

  30. sylvie says:

    Dan, many thanks for the information. I never thought about pruning the vine back, so it was getting too big too fast for the space. And the cool greenhouse was too cool… I will try again to start a couple of fruit in December this year, give them a large pot and prune them! As it is, I grow chayote for its greens: there are 3 growing in the garden now, and and they provide plenty of tasty shoots. Still, having fruit is really nice – what are you going to do with all of this? Best and thanks again for stopping by.

  31. Dan says:

    I give away most of the chayote fruit as one person can only eat so many :) I actually grow all my vegetables behind my pharmacy. It was a jungle of weeds 6 years ago so I decided to make use of the space and now its my personal organic urban garden which I share with the co-workers and customers alike. Definitely a great conversation piece as most people in the city do not have the space to garden.

  32. sylvie says:

    Dan – it sounds like you have created a little paradise – in the original meaning of the word.

  33. eleanor says:

    My chayote plant started bearing fruits but they stop growing, the next time I check on them they already turned brown. I live here in Southern California, our temperature is still in the 100s this week so I mulched and water them twice a day. There are plenty of shoots with male and female flowers, sometimes I am tempted to gather some shoots for my salad but I have to wait until some fruits will develop for me to harvest. Anyway thanks for all the info.

  34. tenzing says:

    Hi,

    I want to grow Chayote and I live in Fairfax Virginia. Can you anyone of you help me where can I get the seed or Chayote from.

    Thanks.

  35. Karina Sanchez says:

    Do you know if you can purchase organic Chayote in the US? I have been having trouble finding it. I want to avoid the conventional Chayotes in order to avoid pesticides.

  36. sylvie says:

    As started in the article you need the whole fruit and most major grocery stores (Food Lion, Safeway, Giant, Martin’s etc) in Northern Virginia carry it. Besides, so do many Asian markets and Latino markets.

  37. sylvie says:

    I expect it’s possible, but I have not encountered one in Virginia. I expect it would be more likely in the regions where the climate allows chayotes to be grown for their fruit: Louisiana, Texas, Florida, California, Hawaii…

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