Caigua (scientific name Cyclanthera pedata) is an edible fruit native from South America. The plant is a herbaceous vine and its fruit is normally used like a vegetable.
It is speculated that this vine was originally found and harvested from the forest, as some kind of wild cucumber. However, it was domesticated sometimes in early human history. Today, caigua can only be found as a cultivated plant, the original wild version has become extinct. Very old phytomorphic ceramics from Peru, for example those of the Moche culture, show representations of the fruit, this proves the long history of this vine. The fact that it has become fully domesticated is proven by the very large size of the fruit, when compared to any of its closest wild relatives.
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The origin of caigua is in today's Peru and the common name of the plant comes from a Hispanicized version of its Quechua name kaywa. It is especially known from the Moche, a local culture older than the Incas that flourished from 100 AD to 800 AD. Their ceramics usually depicted agriculture products and caigua fruits are often found among them.
Caigua is a well-adapted plant and can live in both warm and cold climates. This versatility makes it ideal for the rough terrain of Peru.
The plant can grow to a length of about 40 feet. Its leaves have a width of 5 inches and it starts producing flowers in the summer, from July until September. The flowers are numerous but small, with a color resembling cream. Several types of insects help in the process of pollination, in particular hoverflies. From the flowers, many small fruits with pointed ends start growing, although not all of them survive. Typically, they develop either single or in pairs.
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The mature fruits have a pale green color and can grow to a maximum size of about 3 inches in width and 6 inches in length. The fruit is hollow, with a thin skin. For this reason, the caigua is also named the "stuffing cucumber" and is usually served filled with other food products through its empty center.
In Peru, caigua has been used for a very long time as a strong fat absorber. Combined with a local herb named hercampuri, it was widely believed to help with weight loss. These ancient claims and continued use in weight loss until modern times have prompted a series of scientific studies on the properties of the fruit. Modern research has validated the claims of traditional medicine and discovered that consumption of the fruit can reduce body fat, as well as cellulite.
By absorbing fat, caigua can provide significant health benefits. It increases good cholesterol (HDL) while reducing bad LDL cholesterol, with an overall positive effect on heart health. Herbal tea made from the vine's seeds is known to decrease blood pressure and prevent it from reaching dangerous levels. The same tea has an additional medical use, in the treatment of gastrointestinal problems.
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The plant has numerous other health benefits and pretty much any part of it has proven to be useful. Eating the fruit provides the body with essential nutrients, resulting in an overall rejuvenating effect. It reduces fat and cellulite, cleaning the blood of various other impurities. It can be used in the treatment of various infections, from otitis (ear infection) to malaria fevers and various types of kidney and stomach pain. By crushing the dried seeds, a powerful powder can be prepared and used in doses of about one gram to get rid of intestinal parasites.
The leaves have several uses. They can be boiled in olive oil, along with the fruits, in order to prepare a mixture that can be applied on the skin to relieve pain and inflammation. The leaves are edible and known to be hypoglycemic, as a result they can be included in a diet for diabetes patients. Health benefits can be found even in the root, which is still used in traditional cultures to clean the teeth.
Some of the other health benefits of consuming the fruit are known from practical experience: it relieves pain of the internal organs (with both analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties), can help against varicose veins and control the level of sugar and lipids in the blood.
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Several parts of the herb can be eaten, not only the fruits and seeds but the leaves as well. In Peru and other South American countries, the fruits are eaten raw after the seeds are removed. The interior is hollow, similar to bell peppers.
The fruits can be eaten once they grow to full size, even if they aren't ripe yet. They can be used as such in various cooked dishes or added to salads. Another option is to prepare them as pickles. Caigua fruits don't have a strong taste and resemble other green vegetables, usually similar in taste to cucumbers when raw and to green capsicum when cooked.
The mature fruit is cooked after removing the seeds. They are usually stuffed with cheese, meat, other vegetables or fish and prepared exactly like stuffed peppers. An alternative use for the ripe fruits is to make a very healthy natural juice.
Other parts of the plant are edible as well. The leaves and young shoots of caigua can be eaten raw or added to salads, while a tea can be brewed from its seeds.
The caigua vine originates from Peru and today it is cultivated in most of South and Central America, in particular in the Andes. It has spread to several islands of the Caribbean but also to Asia, where it can be found in North India and its two small neighbours to the North, Nepal and Bhutan. The most important producers are Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and Mexico.
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The plant is very adaptable and its main advantage is the tolerance for high elevations of up to 2000 m over sea level. It is originally a tropical plant and enjoys hot and humid areas but it can also flourish in cooler climates and survive the harsh mountain weather.
The easiest way to propagate this plant is to use its seeds. It's recommended to sow them initially in pots and use compost of very fertile soil. The ideal moment to plant the seeds is in early April, in particular during a warm period of the month. After the seeds germinate and the plant appears, it can be transferred to a greenhouse or in the garden. Be very careful however, the young plants don't tolerate any frost and will be killed by it. Special care must be taken to protect them from frost especially in mountain areas or cooler climates, where temperature can drop below zero at night even in late spring.
Since caigua comes from a rainy area, it needs plenty of water while young and it must be provided with plenty of extra moisture in dry zones.
Ideally, the soil must be as fertile as possible. It doesn't really need additional fertilization, although potassium-rich fertilizers can be added in order to achieve better results.
The ripe fruit is very rich in bioactive compounds. Chemical analysis has found various steroids as well as a number of phytochemicals including lipoproteins, peptins, galacturonic acid and several resins.
Caigua consumption is generally safe but there are a few known side effects. Ingesting large quantities is known to damage vision. Patients with signs of hypotension and hypoglycemia should be especially careful, since significant quantities of caigua can lead to several neurological issues, including strong headaches, dizziness and unclear eyesight. For the same reasons, caigua should be avoided by people with high serum transaminases or active liver problems.
One of the best advantages of caigua is that the vine fruit production is actually stimulated by harvesting. This means the more fruits you harvest, the more the plant will produce to replace them, so it can provide a significant quantity during the summer. For propagation purposes, the fruits must be allowed to become overripe, which makes them inedible. However, the seeds can be collected and stored in order to be planted later.