The handsome chayote fruit is not the only edible part of this talented vine. Starchy tubers are also havested and used in cooking like potatoes.
Chayote, the vine, is a tuberous rooted perennial that climbs by clinging with tenacious tendrils. Vines can scramble over structures and up trees for 40 ft (12 m) or more. The leaves are broadly triangulate, about 5-8 in (12-20 cm) long, with shallow lobes. Chayote, the fruit, is a pale apple-green rounded pear shaped thing about 6 in (15 cm) long that dangles from the vines on thin stems. It is thick and fleshy, a little crisp, and contains a single large seed which is eaten right along with the flesh. The flowers are small and whitish in color. Female flowers, produced only late in the growing season, give rise to the fruits whose taste has been compared to cucumbers and summer squash. There are several varieties of chayote cultivated in various parts of the world. They differ in details of shape, size and texture. Most varieties have fruits with ridges; some are smooth; some are knobby, and some are fuzzy; some are dark green, some almost white, and some are brown. About all you will find in American grocery stores are pale lime green fruits with longitudinal ridges on an otherwise smooth skin.
Chayote, Sechium edule, originated in the cool mountains of Central America where it was first domesticated by the Aztecs. Today chayote is grown throughout the tropical and subtropical world for the edible fruits and tubers.
Chayotes need a long, warm growing season. Provide a strong trellis or tree. Growing more than one chayote vine should improve pollination and result in more fruits. Light: Chayote vines need full sun. Moisture: Water chayote plants freely throughout the growing season. Hardiness: USDA Zones 8-11. Chayote vines are usually perennial, returning in spring after light freezes kill the vine to the ground in winter. Be sure to mulch the root before a hard freeze. On the other hand, chayote is often grown as an annual in areas where freezing weather is common. Note, however, that at least five or six months of growing season is required to get fruits. In frost free regions, cut the vines back to 6 ft (2 m) or so before new growth begins in spring. Propagation: Chayote fruits sometimes begin germinating while still hanging on the vine. Grow your own chayote by planting the entire fruit. Simply bury the fruit, broad end downward and stem end nearly exposed, in spring, or give it a head start by planting the fruit in a pot several weeks before setting out after all danger of frost has past. Fruits purchased at the local grocery store should germinate readily.
A chayote flower (left) and baby chayote will mature over the season into tasty salads and savory baked dishes.
Chayotes are like summer squash, but a little crisper in texture and with a similarly subtle flavor. (Some say they are relatively bland and need seasoning.) Chayotes are sometimes eaten raw in salads and salsas, but are more often cooked by boiling, sauteing or baking. Although very young fruits can be eaten in their entirety, it is usually best to peel the older, more mature fruits. Slice the chayote through the folds between the ridges, then use a vegetable peeler. The peeled sections can then be cubed for frying or used in soups. Don't remove the single large tender seed, whose flavor has been compared to something between an almond and a lima bean. Chayotes retain a crispiness after cooking that summer squashes do not. A favorite method around here is to cut the chayotes in half, lay them cut side down on a baking dish and bake like a winter squash; serve with butter. I peel and cube, then blanch, the fruits for freezing. They are still crispy after thawing, and are a great addition to vegetable soups. People in the tropics eat the large, starchy tubers as well as the fruits. Tubers from vines at least two years old are candied, boiled, or roasted like potatoes.
Folks in Louisiana call this edible gourd mirliton; in Trinidad it's known as christophine; in India, chow-chow, and the folks in China call it something that refers to Buddha's hand. With good growing conditions, you should get 50-100 chayote fruits per vine per season. I use a long bamboo cane to twist off chayotes way up in a tree; a neighbor friend shoots them down! The squirrels will destroy many of the chayotes. My friend should probably shoot the squirrels! (Just kidding.)