Growing Mirlitons: From Garden to Table
Growing and Eating Mirlitons (Sechium edule)
In south Louisiana, especially the New Orleans area, we are serious about our mirlitons. Mirliton plants and recipes are handed down from parent to child. The growing and cooking of the vegetable pear is part of our tradition and heritage, and knowledge is shared across the generations.
Mirliton is what we call them in Louisiana. Other names include vegetable pear, mango squash, chayote, choko and a few other colorful names. The word is pronounced, "MEL-a-tahn" (with a short e). If you are visiting New Orleans, you may hear someone say, "Would ya like a helping of my stuffed MEL-a-tahns, dawlin?" Your answer would be "yes," because they are delicious.
In this article, I am going to treat you like one of the family and show you how to successfully grow mirlitons. I will also pass on some of the recipes that Dottie, my dear, departed mother-in-law shared with me. She was a native New Orleanian of Italian and Irish heritage, and she was an excellent cook.
Have you eaten a mirliton?
Growing MirlitonsClick thumbnail to view full-size
How to Grow Mirlitons
First, you get a few mirlitons that were grown in the area. Before Hurricane Katrina, every other backyard in the New Orleans area (which included the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain) had a mirliton vine growing. But, the "New Orleans" stock of mirlitons was almost lost after Hurricane Katrina. Some from the Northshore and surrounding suburbs were saved and now are repopulating the crop.
The chayotes that are found in the supermarket just don't do well in south Louisiana. The stock that has been growing here for over 50 years is acclimated to the climate and soil conditions.
Mirlitons will start sprouting from the seed inside as they age in the fall. I always keep three to four of them and put them in large (2-3 gallon) pots in a frost-free place like a greenhouse. Lay it sideways in the pot and cover the mirliton with soil. The roots will grow from the end where the sprout comes out. Keep it moist. By spring, the vine should be three or four feet long.
When the weather warms up and there is no chance of frost, it's time to plant the mirliton plant in the garden. Position it near a fence or trellis, because the vines will grow 20 feet long (or more) by fall.
Dig a hole, about two feet deep and two feet wide. Mix compost or well-rotted manure with the existing soil in the bottom of the hole. Plant the mirliton so that the roots are covered and the bottom of the vine (the crown) is just above the soil line. Form a slight indentation around the plant so that the water will be held and will soak in.
Mirlitons are heavy feeders and like moist, well-drained soil. They seem to do better with morning sun. They produce in cool weather.
If the weather cooperates, the male and female flowers should start blooming in September. From October until the first freeze, you will be harvesting many mirlitons.
It is not uncommon for each plant to produce over 100 fruits. That's why most New Orleanians have many mirliton recipes.
Vegetable Pear Anatomy
As you can see in the botanical sketch above, the seed sprouts inside the mirliton—so the whole vegetable pear is like a giant seed.
The male flowers are on a separate stem than the female flowers. The female flowers form the fruit. The flowers are pale creamy white and translucent.
In mild winters and protected areas, the plants will often come back the following spring.
Y'all Want Some Stuffed Mirlitons?
Dottie's Stuffed Mirlitons Recipe
- 4 mirlitons
- 1 to 1 1/4 cup soft Italian breadcrumbs
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 1/2 pound shrimp (or ham or ground meat) coarsely chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- Dash black pepper
- 1 teaspoon chopped parsley
- 1 sprig thyme
- 1/8 cup buttered bread crumbs
- Simmer the mirlitons in salted water until tender (about 1 to 1 1/4 hours). (You can cook them whole or cut them in half before cooking.) Remove from the heat, drain and reserve about 1 cup of the boiling water. Cut the mirlitons in half, if you cooked them whole; remove the seeds and carefully spoon out the pulp. (Dottie just put her stuffing into a casserole dish, but many people stuff the mirliton shells.) Set the shells aside if you want to stuff them.
- Chop up the pulp and add Italian bread crumbs. Sauté onions, garlic and shrimp or meat of your choice in butter or olive oil over medium heat until tender, about 10 to 15 minutes. Mix in pulp mixture, salt and pepper; continue cooking for 5 minutes, stirring frequently. (If it is too dry, add a little of the reserved mirliton boiling water.) Cool a little and add parsley and thyme and mix thoroughly.
- Fill vegetable shells or shallow casserole dish with pulp mixture and sprinkle tops with buttered bread crumbs. Bake at 375 degrees F for 25 minutes. Serves 8.
My own variation: Add 1/4 cup of grated Parmesan cheese with the parsley and thyme mixture and sprinkle a little more cheese on top with the buttered breadcrumbs.
Boiling the Mirlitons
Questions & Answers
Where can I find a potted established mirliton plant to put in the ground?
In Louisiana, at local feed stores, potted mirlitons are often available in early spring.
Are Mirliton supposed to be hard when you buy them?
Yes, they should be firm. They will soften up when you boil them, then you'll be able to scoop the flesh out.
My vine just randomly sprouted. One day, it just appeared near my patio — I didn’t plant it. It’s going crazy. When will it begin to bear fruit? Do I need to cut it back?
Mirliton plants bloom and bear when the weather cools off in fall. Give the vines something to run on. Do not cut it back because you may be cutting off the tiny flowers. I hope your vines are loaded this year.