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Growing Mirlitons: From Garden to Table

Yvonne is a Louisiana Master Gardener and a former president of the Folsom Native Plant Society. She gives talks about sustainable gardens.

The mirliton is also known as the chayote or vegetable pear. This one's almost ready to pick.

The mirliton is also known as the chayote or vegetable pear. This one's almost ready to pick.

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.

My mother-in-law, Dottie, with a few of the mirlitons that we grew one year.

My mother-in-law, Dottie, with a few of the mirlitons that we grew one year.

Mirliton Poll

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.

Botanical sketch of a mirliton vine and fruit. The scientific name is Sechium edule.

Botanical sketch of a mirliton vine and fruit. The scientific name is Sechium edule.

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.

The male flower is at the top of the photo, and female with fruit is at the bottom.

The male flower is at the top of the photo, and female with fruit is at the bottom.

Y'all Want Some Stuffed Mirlitons?

Stuffed mirlitons are a traditional south Louisiana holiday dish.

Stuffed mirlitons are a traditional south Louisiana holiday dish.

Dottie's Stuffed Mirlitons Recipe

Ingredients

  • 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

Directions

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Harvest Time

A mirliton and other vegetables

A mirliton and other vegetables

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: Are Mirliton supposed to be hard when you buy them?

Answer: Yes, they should be firm. They will soften up when you boil them, then you'll be able to scoop the flesh out.

Question: Where can I find a potted established mirliton plant to put in the ground?

Answer: In Louisiana, at local feed stores, potted mirlitons are often available in early spring.

Question: 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?

Answer: 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.

Question: Can I still use my mirlitons if they started growing roots? I left them in my grocery bag too long.

Answer: Yes, they can still be used in cooking. Just cut off the stem/roots, then cut the mirliton in half and remove the flat seed. Boil the halves until tender and add to your recipe.

Well Dawlin', Tell Us What You Thought.

Yvonne L. B. (author) from South Louisiana on December 14, 2016:

Don, I have over-wintered them in a bowl on my counter. My cat thought the sprouts were tasty and kept them pruned back, forcing them to branch. When the weather warmed up in spring I potted them up in gallon pots and kept them in a sheltered place outside. If frost threatens, you'll need to bring them in till it warms up again. You could also make a simple cold frame to shelter the pots.

Don on December 13, 2016:

Do you have any tips on keeping mirlitons from sprouting over the winter? I don't have a greenhouse and I'm hoping to keep a couple of dozen of this year's crop to give to friends for planting in the spring. The ones I've stored in a closed kitchen cupboard already have three foot sprouts after a month.

Thanks.

Yvonne L. B. (author) from South Louisiana on November 06, 2016:

In the fall of the year, in South Louisiana, you should be able to find plenty at farmers' markets and local fruit stands. The mirlitons in the big chain grocery stores usually come from S. America and don't grow well in our climate.

Wayne Deshotel on July 25, 2016:

Dottie, how can I order or get some mirlitons to plant myself? I live in central Louisiana.

Yvonne L B from Covington, LA on November 07, 2014:

When mirlitons are mature they are large and full. They are in the squash family so they can be eaten at many stages. When they start to sprout from the "seed" inside mirlitons can still be eaten, but may not be as flavorful.

MLANDRY on November 07, 2014:

How do I know a mirliton is ripe?

Yvonne L. B. (author) from South Louisiana on June 26, 2011:

davenmidtown, Thanks, in your climate, you should have no trouble growing them.

Yvonne L. B. (author) from South Louisiana on June 26, 2011:

Silver Poet, Thanks for the comment. Yes, we were so happy when we found a grower at the Farmer's Market that had some of the "New Orleans" stock. Now we can grow mirlitons again.

David Stillwell from Sacramento, California on June 26, 2011:

What a great hub! I have seen these in the market and always wondered what they were. Thanks to you, I now know. I will have to try to plant some next year.

Silver Poet from the computer of a midwestern American writer on June 21, 2011:

Fascinating. Simply fascinating. I had never even heard of these. I'm glad they were able to be saved and grown again after Katrina.

Yvonne L. B. (author) from South Louisiana on June 21, 2011:

Peggy W and VirginiaLynne, Thanks for your comments. Chayote or vegetable pear is the more recognized name, except here in Louisiana. We strive to always be "unique". ;)

Yvonne L. B. (author) from South Louisiana on June 21, 2011:

J.A. Brown, Thanks for the comments. Yes, Louisiana, the northern most "banana republic", has been growing and eating mirlitons (chayotes) for many years.

That's very interesting about the roof top gardens. Part of sustainable gardening is to use the vertical space and the poor in Costa Rica have been doing it out of necessity. We should take a lesson from them.

Virginia Kearney from United States on June 20, 2011:

I have lived in Texas now for 18 years and never heard of these--but chayote sounds more familiar. I love learning about new dishes. Thanks!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on June 20, 2011:

Wow...I have purchased them in grocery stores but have never tried growing them. They are so good and the recipe you included sounds like a winner. Thanks!

J.A. Brown from Costa Rica (for the moment) on June 20, 2011:

Oh, and one thing you might find interesting. Here, chayota/mirlitons are often grown on rooftops! Frequently, in the poorer areas, the roofs are made of a zinc laminate material, and if a family lives in the city, they'll make a garden by bolstering the roof and putting a layer of soil up there to plant some things. Chayote, ayote (a kind of squash, like a cross between a zucchini and yellow squash, which is very yummy), and a few other things. They grow very well practically anywhere, and put out several crops per year in our tropical climate.

J.A. Brown from Costa Rica (for the moment) on June 20, 2011:

Oh, my goodness!!! I have lived in Costa Rica for the past 10 years and never even knew people knew about these wonderful vegetables up north!! Here, they call them chayotes, and they are one of my favorite things to cook. I'll post some recipes from down here, you'll love them, and I bet you've never seen them, because they're normally in Spanish!! Thanks for the post, great recipes that I'll have to try out, too!