Even in the heat of summer, Horacio Fuentes doesn't need any shade in his Wilshire Park backyard. After all, he has a chayote. A seamless sea of green runs from the second-floor eaves of his house to the detached garage in the back, shading the entire length of the driveway. It is one plant, just in its second year, resting on a flat DIY latticework of string, wire and PVC pipe.
The setup allows Fuentes to harvest the fruit from below easily, he says, although sometimes he has to get up on the roof of the garage
"I have to stop it from going over the neighbor's wall," he says.
The chayote is a Cuban variety -- grown from a single fruit that he bought at a market and planted when a shoot began emerging from one end. One plant can produce 60 to 80 palm-sized fruit; covered in plastic and refrigerated, they can keep for a month or more.
Chayote is the Zelig of edibles. Its subtle -- almost indiscernible -- taste and crisp, firm flesh (like a water chestnut) making it an ideal filler food, adaptable to the flavor of other ingredients. The plant originated in southern Mexico and was an Aztec staple, and it has since become a go-to gourd around the world, used in Indian chutneys, Vietnamese stir-fry, French quiches and New Orleans pies. An Australian urban legend that McDonald's used chayote as a cheap substitute for Granny Smiths in hot apple turnovers was so persistent that, the Telegraph of Sydney reported, the fast-food chain set up a website to counter the claim.
All parts of the chayote (Sechium edule) are edible, from the root to the tender tips of the vines. But be warned. This fast-growing, sun-loving perennial can take over the garden, swallowing up gazebos, fences, sheds and giant plushies (see photo from Rosewood Community Garden). Chayote plants grow well with passionfruit, another gloriously invasive vine.
If you want to start a plant from store-bought chayote, look for an older one with a tough skin. Leave the fruit on the counter until a sprout emerges. Once this sprout is about 6 inches long, bury the fruit in well-drained, sandy soil at about a 45-degree angle, fat end down, sprout exposed. The roots are shallow, and the plant does best growing in a weed-free, well-mulched space, ideally at least 6 feet in diameter, slightly raised on a mound to avoid root rot.
Make sure a trellis or some other structure will provide support once the plant begins to climb. When the season is done, Fuentes cuts his back almost to the ground, leaving short stalks to winter over.
And remember: You only need one plant.