902 Carica papayaCommon Names: papaya, papaw, fruta bomba, lechosa, melon tree Family: Caricaceae (papaya Family)
The papaya plant has an erect branchless trunk 6-20 ft (1.8-6.1 m) tall, and a palmlike head of foliage at the top. The trunk remains somewhat succulent and soft wooded, and never develops true bark. It is ringed with prominent scars from previous leaf stems and contains an acrid milky latex sap. The leaves are deeply incised and lobed, up to 24 in (61 cm) across and borne on 24 in (61 cm) petioles. The smooth-skinned fruits are green, yellow, orange or rose colored, and can weigh as much as 20 pounds (9.1 kg), but typically are about a pound (0.5 kg). They hang on short stalks in clusters directly from the trunk beneath the umbrella of giant leaves. Papayas flower and fruit simultaneously throughout the year. Normally dioecious in the wild, hermaphroditic papaya cultivars have been developed. Several variations of the 'Solo' cultivars, or Hawaiian papaya, are the most common papayas in American grocery stores; these are monoecious cultivars, only 6-8 ft (1.8-2.4 m) tall, which produce small, single serving fruits. Mexican papayas produce fruits weighing up to 10 lbs (4.5 kg), on much larger plants.
Papaya, Carica papaya, is native to the lowland tropics of South America. It is cultivated throughout the world's tropical and frostfree subtropical regions for its edible fruits, and has naturalized in many areas. Almost every kitchen garden in the tropics or subtropics has a papaya plant or two. In the U.S., papaya is cultivated in Hawaii, southern California and South Florida.
CultureGrow papaya in fertile, well-drained soil. This is one of the easiest of tropical fruits to grow. Papayas usually have male and female flowers on separate plants and you can't determine the sex until they flower, usually about 6 months after germination. Male flowers are thin and borne on short stalks; female flowers are wide and borne directly on the trunk. Select only hermaphroditic plants or all female plants with one male for each 15-20 females. Grow only locally developed cultivars for best results. Light: Papayas need full sun and warmth. Grown in partial shade, they produce fruit that is not very sweet. Moisture: The tropical papaya needs at least 4 in (10.2 cm) of rain per month for optimal fruit production. They like plenty of water when it's warm and less when it's cooler. Hardiness: USDA Zones 10 - 11. Papaya does not tolerate frost or even periods of near freezing temperatures. Propagation: Papayas are usually propagated from seed which takes 3-5 weeks to germinate. Plant at least four or five seeds to be sure you get female and male plants. Seeds of 'Solo' usually produce only female and hermaphroditic plants. Propagate other named cultivars from cuttings or by grafting onto seedling root stock.
Papaya is a short lived plant and young plants produce more fruit than older specimens, so it is best to cultivate a succession of papayas so there will always be some heavy bearing young ones coming on.
The flesh of the ripe papaya fruit is yellow, creamy yet firm, fiberless, sweet and refreshing. Some liken the flavor to melon and apricot. The soft black seeds in the central cavity also are edible, tasting a little like watercress or nasturtium. Ripe papayas are soft and have a thin skin. In most cases the papayas available in grocery stores were picked while still hard and unripe. Like avocados, they will ripen off the tree at room temperature, but they will never taste as good as tree ripened fruits. Hasten the ripening of papayas by putting them in a paper bag with an apple or banana for a day or two. Never chill papayas until they are completely ripe. Use papayas in fruit salads, or serve sliced with lime juice. Pureed with ginger and hot peppers, papaya marinade is a natural meat tenderizer. Unripe, green papayas are pickled or cooked and eaten like summer squash, especially in Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. The young leaves are sometimes eaten like spinach.
The unripe papaya fruit and the leaves are the source of papain, an enzyme that digests protein and that is used as a dietary supplement to aid in digestion. Papain is used as a meat tenderizer, to clarify beer, in the processing of natural silk and to give shrink resistance to wool.
Try growing papaya even in zone 8B or 9. They germinate quickly, grow fast, flower young and produce a nice tropical looking plant even if they don't have enough time to produce fruit before frost. Start seeds indoors and set out 8-10 week old plants along a south facing wall.
Leaves and unripe fruits are toxic and must be cooked before eating.
Steve Christman 01/4/00; updated 1/12/04; 8/21/04, 10/28/07