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Tree of the Week: Papaya from your own backyard?

December 5, 2009 |  6:00 am

Papaya -- Carica papaya 

Just like the banana, the papaya grows in what technically should be called a big perennial herb rather than a tree, but for our purposes this fun-to-grow plant with its big snowflake-looking leaves is tree-like enough. Originally found in southern Mexico, Panama, Colombia and Central America, the papaya tree was cultivated for centuries before it was first introduced in 1526 to Western literature by the Spanish historian Gonzalo Fernandez de Ovieda y Valdez. Papayas made their way to Hawaii at the end of the 18th century.

Papaya Carica papaya is the fruit most often found in our markets. Less often encountered are the mountain papaya of the Andes, C. pubescens,and the self-fruitful Babaco, C. x heilbornii pentagona. C. papaya varieties available are the pear-shaped, smaller, more intensely flavored Hawaiian papayas, and the larger, less intensely flavored Mexican papayas. There are several cultivars available in each group. Contact the California Rare Fruit Growers for more information.

Papaya fruit is eaten peeled and raw, or cooked when unripe. It contains the enzyme papain, used as a meat tenderizer and is reputed to have many health benefits. The seeds are sometimes used as pepper substitutes.

Papaya plants grow very fast from seeds or transplants to become tall, narrow and upright, 12 to 15 feet tall and 3 to 6 feet wide, with a smooth, greenish and straight hollow stem, up to a foot wide at the base. The trunk is topped with a big cluster of spirally arranged leaves. All parts of the plant contain latex.

In the Southland, papayas love a warm spot with reflected heat from a south wall, and somewhat sloping ground so that no water can collect on their roots. They do well in large containers. Leaves, up to 3 feet, are deeply lobed. Five-petaled flowers are fleshy, waxy and fragrant and develop nine to 12 months after germination. Plants may have male, female or bisexual flowers. Female flowers develop into abundant 1 pound-plus orange or yellow juicy, sweet fruits, with lots of black seeds that are conveniently clustered together for removal. A plant could produce 100 to 200 of fruit a year.

Trees produce best when young. Because in the case of the C. papaya you can’t see which are males or females until flowering, it is easiest to grow a group of three to five at a time, keep what’s needed and replace plants often. Root rot and virus diseases should be watched for, and plants should be babied if fruit production is the goal.

Genetically modified papayas were introduced in Hawaii in the 1990s to ward off the papaya ring spot virus. They were successful in that regard, but then they apparently also contaminated the organic papaya crop.

-- Pieter Severynen

Thoughts? Comments?

Photo: A fruiting papaya tree in the Mount Washington area. Credit: Pieter Severynen