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Cnidoscolus aconitifolius - (Mill.) I.M.Johnst.

Common Name Tree Spinach, Tread Softly, Cabbage Star, Chaya
Family Euphorbiaceae
USDA hardiness 9-11
Known Hazards The uncooked leaves contain cyanogenic glycosides that produce hydrogen cyanide upon tissue damage[ 299 ]. The cooking time required to lower HCN to safe levels is about 15 minutes[ 299 ]. Long-term contact with the white sap can cause skin irritation[ 299 ]. The leaves of most members of this genus have stinging hairs, this species is, apparently, only lightly armed[ 541 ], though gloves should probably still be used when harvesting them[ 298 ].(Parts of plant are poisonous if ingested Handling plant may cause skin irritation or allergic reaction )
Habitats Moist and dry thickets in open forest, often in open rocky localities, from sea-level up to elevations of 1,300 metres[ 299 ].
Range Central America - Panama north to Mexico.
Edibility Rating    (4 of 5)
Other Uses    (2 of 5)
Weed Potential No
Medicinal Rating    (3 of 5)
Care (info)
Tender Moist Soil Semi-shade Full sun
Cnidoscolus aconitifolius Tree Spinach, Tread Softly, Cabbage Star, Chaya

Frank Vincentz
Cnidoscolus aconitifolius Tree Spinach, Tread Softly, Cabbage Star, Chaya
Tortie tude


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Tree spinach (Cnidoscolus aconitifolius), otherwise known as Tread Softly, Cabbage Star, or Chaya, is a tropical shrub or small tree of about 6 m in height. It is characterized by stinging hairs, pale trunk, and alternate and simple leaves. The plant has several medicinal usages. It is used as treatment for various illnesses (i.e., alcoholism, diabetes, insomnia, gout, scorpion stings, skin disorders, and venereal diseases) and for its ability to strengthen fingernails, darken greying hair, and improving brain function and memory. When cooked, the young leaves and shoots of tree spinach are consumed as vegetable as it is rich in protein, calcium, iron, carotene, riboflavin, niacin, and ascorbic acid. It should be noted however that leaves should be cooked thoroughly to remove its high hydrocyanic acid content. Aside from medicinal and food use, tree spinach is also planted as a hedgerows in gardens. It can be grown from woody stem cuttings, softwood cuttings, or semi-hardwood cutting.

Physical Characteristics

 icon of manicon of shrub
Cnidoscolus aconitifolius is an evergreen Shrub growing to 5 m (16ft) by 4 m (13ft) at a fast rate.
It is hardy to zone (UK) 10.
It is noted for attracting wildlife.
Suitable for: light (sandy), medium (loamy) and heavy (clay) soils, prefers well-drained soil and can grow in nutritionally poor soil. Suitable pH: acid, neutral and basic (alkaline) soils and can grow in very acid and very alkaline soils.
It can grow in semi-shade (light woodland) or no shade. It prefers moist soil and can tolerate drought.

UK Hardiness Map US Hardiness Map


Cnidoscolus chaya Lundell Cnidoscolus chayamansa McVaugh Cnidoscolus fragrans (Kunth) Pohl Cnidoscol


Edible Uses

Edible Parts: Leaves  Shoots
Edible Uses: Drink

The young leaves and shoots, detoxified by cooking, are eaten as a vegetable[ 317 ]. A good flavour, they are boiled and used as a spinach[ 298 ]. Rich in protein, calcium, iron, carotene, riboflavin, niacin and ascorbic acid[ 298 ]. Up to 5 raw leaves can be eaten a day. They can be eaten alone or in combination with other vegetables in stews and soups[ 299 ]. They are only rarely eaten raw as fresh greens[ 299 ]. Traditionally leaves are immersed and simmered for 20 minutes and then served with oil or butter. The leaves contain about 25% protein[ 317 ]. The raw leaves contain potentially harmful cyanogenic glycosides which can break down to produce hydrogen cyanide upon tissue damage. Cooking breaks down the glycosides, the time required to lower them to safe levels is about 15 minutes[ 299 ]. A popular drink in Yucatan (Mexico) is made by blending the raw leaves in sugar water with lemons, pineapple and other fruits[ 299 ]. This is said to heighten virility[ 299 ].


Medicinal Uses

Plants For A Future can not take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally.

The plant is said to have many medicinal benefits, ranging from the ability to strengthen fingernails and darken greying hair[ 299 ]. It is also used to cure alcoholism, diabetes, insomnia, skin disorders, venereal diseases, gout, scorpion stings and to improve brain function and memory[ 299 ]. Numerous flavonoid compounds have been isolated from the leaves - most are kaempferol and quercetin glycosides[ 299 ]. Most medicinal properties have never been experimentally tested[ 299 ]. Diabetic rabbits, fed increasingly higher quantities of the leaves, showed a significant drop in blood sugar levels[ 299 ]. Chicks fed diets high in the leaf meal had a lower overall mass but a significant increase in absolute heart mass, liver mass, red blood cell count and a significant reduction in mortality[ 299 ]. The plant is known to contain proteolytic enzymes, which could explain the use of chaya sap for skin disorders[ 299 ].


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Other Uses

Hair  Hedge

Agroforestry Uses: The plant is grown as a hedge in home gardens[ 299 , 317 ]. Attractive to bees, butterflies and/or birds.

Special Uses

Attracts Wildlife  Carbon Farming  Coppice  Food Forest  Hedge


Cultivation details

Agroforestry Services: Crop shade  Agroforestry Services: Living fence  Management: Coppice  Management: Standard  Minor Global Crop  Other Systems: Homegarden  Staple Crop: Protein

A plant of tropical regions, it can survive harsh conditions of high temperatures and droughts[ 299 ]. It grows best in areas where annual daytime temperatures are within the range 20 - 32°c, but can tolerate 12 - 38°c[ 418 ]. It prefers a mean annual rainfall in the range 1,000 - 2,000mm, but tolerates 500 - 2,500mm[ 418 ]. Prefers a sunny position, but also succeeds in deep shade[ 299 , 418 ]. Thrives on a wide range of soils[ 298 ]. Prefers a pH in the range 5.5 - 6.5, tolerating 4.5 - 7.5[ 418 ]. Plants are tolerant of occasional inundation[ 298 , 299 ]. Established plants are drought tolerant[ 299 ]. Although the plant can reach 6 metres in height, the stems are easily broken by wind and it is recommended that a height of less than 2 metres be maintained[ 299 ]. The first harvest can be taken 90 - 120 days after planting out[ 418 ]. A fast-growing plant that resprouts well after cutting[ 298 ]. The leaves are larger when grown in partial shade[ 298 ]. Annual dry leaf yields of up to 12 t/ha are possible on fertile soil with about 9,000 plants/ha[ 299 ]. The optimum harvest period is only 2 - 3 months per year, but in home gardens leaves are harvested as needed all the year round[ 299 ]. The plant is ever-growing with a perpetual crop of leaves[ 332 ]. Harvesting is best done with protected hands, because even in unarmed plants, long-term contact with the white sap can cause skin irritation[ 299 ]. Serious diseases and pests are not known[ 299 ]. There are a number of named varieties[ 299 ]. A USDA study in Puerto Rico reported that higher yields of greens could be obtained with chaya than any other vegetable they had studied. In another study chaya leaves were found to contain substantially greater amounts of nutrients than spinach leaves.

Carbon Farming

  • Agroforestry Services: Crop shade  Plants providing crop shade especially trees.
  • Agroforestry Services: Living fence  Simply managed rows of shrubs and trees.
  • Management: Coppice  Cut to the ground repeatedly - resprouting vigorously. Non-destructive management systems maintaining the soil organic carbon.
  • Management: Standard  Plants grow to their standard height. Harvest fruit, seeds, or other products. Non-Destructive management systems.
  • Minor Global Crop  These crops are already grown or traded around the world, but on a smaller scale than the global perennial staple and industrial crops, The annual value of a minor global crop is under $1 billion US. Examples include shea, carob, Brazil nuts and fibers such as ramie and sisal.
  • Other Systems: Homegarden  Tropical multistrata agroforestry (multi-story combinations of trees, crops, domestic animals in the homestead).
  • Staple Crop: Protein  (16+ percent protein, 0-15 percent oil). Annuals include beans, chickpeas, lentils, cowpeas, and pigeon peas. Perennials include perennial beans, nuts, leaf protein concentrates, and edible milks.


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Seed. Stem cuttings about 40 cm long, that are dried for 1 - 14 days before being planted[ 299 ]. Herbaceous stem cuttings: woody stem cuttings, softwood cuttings From semi-hardwood cuttings. One report suggests that propagaton by seed is not recommended due to the plant does not set seed, flowers are sterile, or plants will not come true from seed.

Other Names

If available other names are mentioned here

Tree spinach (Cnidoscolus aconitifolius), otherwise known as Tread Softly, Cabbage Star, or Chaya. Other Names: Cabbage-star, Chicasquil, Devil nettle, Tree-spinach.

Found In

Countries where the plant has been found are listed here if the information is available

Found In: Africa, Belize, Central America, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Ghana, Grenada, Guatemala, Hawaii, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Nigeria, North America, Pacific, Panama, Peru, USA, Venezuela, West Africa.

Weed Potential

Right plant wrong place. We are currently updating this section. Please note that a plant may be invasive in one area but may not in your area so it’s worth checking.

None Known

Conservation Status

IUCN Red List of Threatened Plants Status : This taxon has not yet been assessed

Related Plants
Latin NameCommon NameHabitHeightHardinessGrowthSoilShadeMoistureEdibleMedicinalOther
Cnidoscolus elasticusHighland chilteShrub1.0 9-11 FLMHNDM004

Growth: S = slow M = medium F = fast. Soil: L = light (sandy) M = medium H = heavy (clay). pH: A = acid N = neutral B = basic (alkaline). Shade: F = full shade S = semi-shade N = no shade. Moisture: D = dry M = Moist We = wet Wa = water.


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(Mill.) I.M.Johnst.

Botanical References

Links / References

For a list of references used on this page please go here
A special thanks to Ken Fern for some of the information used on this page.

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