Presented by: UT El Paso / Austin Cooperative Pharmacy Program & Paso del Norte Health Foundation

Tree Spinach

Compilation by Armando Gonzalez Stuart, PhD.

Scientific Name:

Cnidoscolus chayamansa

Botanical Family:


Other Common Name:

Tread softly, Cabbage star, Wild chaya (Quattrocchi, 2000, 2012; Martínez, 1994; White, 2002; Sánchez-Monge, 2001).

Common names in Spanish:

Chaya*, Chayamansa, Candelero, Chichicaste, Mala mujer, Quelite, Quehua, Tza, Xtasj (Quattrocchi, 2000; 2012; Wieresma and León, 2013; Mendoza-Castelán and Lugo-Pérez, 2011; White, 2002; Sánchez-Monge, 2001; Martínez, 1994; Schoenhals, 1988).
*Certain related species such as C. urens and C. aconitifolium, for example, are covered with stinging hairs, and are also known in Mexico by the common name of “chaya”.

Where is it found?

This shrubby plant or small tree is native to Mexico and Central America (Quattrocchi, 2012; Mabberley, 2008; Martínez, 1994).

Parts of the plant used:

The stems and leaves (Mendoza-Castelán and Lugo-Pérez, 2011; Mabberley, 2008; Adame and Adame, 2000).

How is it used?

Decoctions made from the leaves and stems are used both externally as well as internally. Capsules containing the pulverized leaves are available in certain health food stores.

What is it used for?

The stems and leaves are used for their anti-inflammatory, anti-protozoan, and antibacterial actions. In Mexican traditional medicine, the decoctions of the stems and leaves are considered as a remedy for diabetes, to promote milk production, as a gentle laxative, to lower cholesterol, as well as for the treatment of kidney, respiratory, and gastrointestinal problems. Externally the decoctions are applied for vaginal infections. The tender leaves are edible when cooked, and rich in vitamin C (Mendoza-Castelán and Lugo-Pérez, 2011; Mabberley, 2008; Argueta, 1994). A decoction of the root of a closely related species, C. urens, is taken to treat venereal disease (Martínez, 1989)

A study assessed the biological activities, mainly anti-mycobacterial (specifically against the bacterium that causes tuberculosis), antibacterial, and anti-protozoan. Additionally, the anti-inflammatory properties of a methanolic leaf extract obtained from tree spinach, was evaluated for its possible acute and sub-acute toxic effects. The topical and systemic anti-inflammatory effects of the plant extract were also studied. The results showed that the methanolic extract possessed anti-protozoan (against Entamoeba histolytica and Giardia lamblia), anti-mycobacterial, and anti-inflammatory actions. However, it did not have an important inhibitory effect upon other bacterial strains tested. With regard to acute and sub-acute toxicity, the extract administered to laboratory animals for 28 days was not lethal, nor did it possess any negative actions upon the animals’ organs or tissues. Some of the plant’s phytochemicals (especially the terpenoids) had a positive anti-inflammatory action (Perez-Gonzalez, et al., 2017).

A study of plant extracts obtained from the dried leaves of C. chayamansa revealed that they possess antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities. Additionally, the extracts demonstrated a cardio protective effect in animal models. Interestingly, the authors found that the extracts’ anti-inflammatory activities were not directly related to the free radical scavenging properties of the plant (Garcia –Rodriguez, et al., 2014).

A study employing hypercholesterolemic mice assessed the cholesterol-lowering activity of three extracts (water, ethanol, and methanol) obtained from C. chayamansa leaves. The results of the study showed that only the water-based extract showed a significant reduction in cholesterol levels, regardless of dose. However, the extract did not inhibit the HMG-CoA reductase enzyme, thus suggesting that the plant bioactive compounds function at a different level in cholesterol metabolism (Miranda-Velasquez, 2010).

A methanolic extract of C. chayamansa leaves was assessed for its possible antioxidant and anti-mutagenic properties, as well as for its hypoglycemic effects. The results of the study showed the extract possessed important free-radical scavenging and anti-mutagenic properties. Additionally, the extract showed an acute hypoglycemic effect when fed to diabetic rats, without apparent toxicity. However, the plant’s potential application for the treatment of human cases of diabetes warrants further research (Loarca-Pina et al., 2010).

A study by Kuti and Konuru (2004) assessed the total phenolic content and antioxidant capacity of two closely related tree spinach species (C. chayamansa and C. aconitifolius) as determined in raw and cooked leaf extracts. The leaves’ antioxidant capacity was rated by the oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) assay, and their composition of flavonoid glycosides was quantified by HPLC and identified by GC. The results showed that the total phenolic content, as well as the plants’ antioxidant capacity, had higher values in raw compared to cooked leaf extracts. Additionally, it was found that the leaves of C. aconitifolius had a more diverse content of flavonoid glycosides compared to the leaves of C. chayamansa. However, cooking reduced both the antioxidant activity as well as the phenolic content, and resulted in losses of some antioxidant compounds in both leaf extracts. The results of this study demonstrated that tree spinach leaves are a rich source of natural antioxidants.
Kuti and Kuti (1999) evaluated the proximate composition and mineral content of raw and cooked leaves of two edible tree spinach species (C. chayamansa and C. aconitifolius), both of which are known by the vernacular name of '’chaya'’, and compared their nutritional value with that of spinach (Spinacia oleraceae). The results of the study showed that the two tree spinach species contained significantly greater quantities of crude protein, crude fiber, minerals (Ca, K, Fe), vitamin C (ascorbic acid) and beta-carotene (a precursor of vitamin A) compared to spinach leaves. Additionally, it was found that cooking the leaves of the two tree spinach species slightly reduced their nutritional composition. However, cooking is of primordial importance before eating the leaves, since the raw leaves contain toxic hydrocyanic glycosides.

Safety / Precautions

  • The safety of using products made from this plant (either internally or externally) during pregnancy and lactation has not been established.
  • Avoid taking this plant during pregnancy and lactation.
  • The uncooked leaves should not be eaten, as they may contain toxic cyanogenic glycosides.
  • Other closely related species, especially C. urens, have stinging hairs on the leaves and stem that may cause pain, blistering, and swelling that could last for hours.

Before you decide to take any medicinal herb or herbal supplement, be sure to consult with a health care professional first. Avoid self-medication and self-diagnosis: Always be on the safe side!


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