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Seeking solutions to chayote's sprouting.

Chayote (commonly pronounced chy-O-tay) ranks as one of the world's most versatile vegetables. "It's delicious eaten raw, stir-fried, steamed, or baked," says Louis H. Aung, an ARS researcher who grew up eating chayotes picked fresh from vines in his family's own backyard.

Aung, with ARS' Horticultural Crops Research Laboratory in Fresno, California, wants to make this tropical favorite a familiar choice at the produce section of your local supermarket. His experiments may reveal ways to adjust shipping and storage conditions to suit chayote. Aung hopes to enhance the crop's freshness and flavor while prolonging its shelf-life during packing, shipping, and storage.

Typically marketed when it's about the size and shape of a mango, chayote "tastes a bit like a cucumber, but is crisper and lighter," says Aung. He likens the texture of fresh chayote to that of kohlrabi. When properly cooked, it is slightly firmer than cooked zucchini.

A member of the cucurbit family of melons, squashes, and gourds, chayote ranges from green to yellow to creamy white on the outside. Inside, it's usually the same color as the peel, only lighter. A vigorous vine can easily bear several dozen chayote.

And chayote is nutritious. High in fiber, it's also a good source of potassium, calcium, iron, and vitamin C.

In the United States, fresh chayote is a minor crop, grown commercially in warm-weather states like Florida, California, and Louisiana. Some backyard gardeners in those states grow their own. The hardy vines usually require little care.

We import nearly 8,000 tons of chayote each year, primarily from Costa Pica and Mexico, but also from the Dominican Republic and Guatemala.

Supermarkets with specialty produce sections sell chayote year-round, or nearly so. Another outlet is roadside produce stands. The vegetable may retail for about 65 cents to $2 a pound, or about 55 cents a piece, and up.

In Louisiana, chayote is known as mirliton. Holiday meals often feature halved mirlitons filled with a seasoned shrimp and bread stuffing.

Aung expects ethnic populations from Asia or Central and South America-where it is a familiar part of the traditional cuisine-to increase the demand for fresh chayote in this country. He thinks the vegetable might also appeal to other consumers "interested in trying something different."

Aung and colleagues want to rid chayote of its only major drawback: its troublesome tendency for seed to sprout prematurely on the vine. Aung works with Charles M. Harris, Richard L. Emershad, David C. Fouse, and Roger E. Rij at Fresno. Chayote's seed looks something like a big white lima bean. It can sprout while the chayote is still maturing on the vine-or anytime after that, including while it's in the produce warehouse or on your kitchen counter.

The sprout emerges from a single large seed in the center of the vegetable. Eventually, it pokes through the top, forming a trailing, twining vine.

The curious ability to sprout while still attached to the mother vine is an unusual phenomenon known as vivipary. A botanical rarity, the trait occurs in only a few kinds of plants, including mangrove trees of tropical swamps.

To thwart chayote's erratic sprouting, the researchers want to arrest the seed's growth once the vegetable is harvested. To store up energy to sprout, the developing seed steals moisture and carbohydrates from the surrounding tissues--the part we would otherwise eat.

Without moisture, a firm, succulent chayote can become dry, tough, fibrous, and unappetizing. Drained of some of its sugar-rich carbohydrates, chayote may lose some of its pleasantly bland, often sweet taste.

If allowed to sprout, the chayote is unmarketable. "People think it has sat around too long, even though that might not be the case," says Aung. In tests planned for the next 3 years, the scientists will scrutinize firmness, carbohydrate levels, and other quality-imparting attributes of chayotes kept at a range of temperatures and humidities.

Preliminary studies of more than 150 chayotes indicated that 60(deg) F-a little cooler than room temperaturewill likely prove to be the ideal temperature for storing the vegetable. Chayotes held at that temperature for about 2 weeks didn't sprout. When the same chayotes were kept for a few more days at 78 (deg)F, however, they began to sprout.

Aung says the change in temperature-not unlike the changes that could occur when chayote makes its way from the storeroom to the produce display to your kitchenapparently triggered sprouting.

Cooler storage led to chill-induced injuries. At 41 (deg)F-about the temperature of the typical home refrigerator-swollen, watery looking spots formed on the peel. Further studies may reveal secrets behind chayote's unpredictable sprouting and practical ways to protect the taste and texture of the harvested vegetable as it travels from grower to grocer. Those findings could in turn boost future marketing of this exotic crop. -By Marcia Wood, ARS.

Louis H. Aung, Richard L. Ernershad, Charles M. Harris, David C. Fouse, and Roger E. Rij are with the USDA-ARS Horticultural Crops Research Laboratory, Postharvest Quality and Genetics Research Unit, 2021 South Peach Ave., Fresno, CA 93727. Phone (209) 453-3000.
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Author:Wood, Marcia
Publication:Agricultural Research
Date:Mar 1, 1992
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