Gardeners' Dirt: Papaya considered 'fruit of the angels' by Christopher Columbus
By Pat Plowman - Victoria County Master GardenerEdited by Charla Borchers Leon
June 26, 2014 at 1:26 a.m.
It has been reputed that Christopher Columbus called papaya the "fruit of the angels." Was it the divine taste, delightful color of the fruit or how healthy it made him feel? My first experience eating papaya was in Hawaii. I really liked the unusual, refreshing taste.
When I returned home, I decided to grow a papaya tree and was quite successful. The tree grew quickly and produced papayas in the first year. The tree had some freeze damage in the winters but branched after being cut back and continued producing. Finally, after four years, the tree did not recover from the cold winter.
The papaya (carica papaya L.) - also known as tree melon, "papaw" in Australia, "mamba" in Brazil or "mikana" in Hawaii - is believed to be native to Central America and the southern part of Mexico. Portuguese and Spanish explorers probably introduced this exotic fruit to other tropical regions.
The papaya was brought to the U.S. in the 20th century; Hawaii has been the chief producer in the U.S. since the 1920s. Papayas are also imported to the U.S. from Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Bahamas.
The papaya tree is a short-lived, fast-growing tropical plant, which grows from 8 to 30 feet tall. It has a hollow, herbaceous stem and is usually not branched unless injured. The large palmate leaves are borne on 2- to 3-foot long petioles that grow from the stem apex, giving the tree an umbrella-like appearance.
Papaya trees have shallow root systems and need well-drained soil. Too much moisture will cause root damage and disease. A warm, humid climate and protection from wind and freeze is necessary for good growth.
Varieties, sex, flowers
According to Julian W. Sauls, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension horticulturist, "papayas are generally grown from seeds, so there are few true varieties. Consequently, most papayas are types rather than varieties, so fruiting characteristics are better considered in groups." Papayas are polygamous, which means they bear both unisexual and hermaphrodite flowers on the same plant.
The sex of a papaya tree is not determined until it blooms. Female flowers are borne along the trunk as a single bloom and need to be fertilized by a male or bisexual. Male flowers are long clusters of 1-inch branched, trumpet-shaped blooms along the trunk, and most likely a tree with these clusters will not produce fruit.
Bisexual flowers look like females but with stamens. Bisexuals have male and bisexual flowers or both and will contain bisexual seeds. Papaya trees are even capable of changing sex in certain conditions.
Papayas are referred to as Mexican or Hawaiian. The Mexican papaya, a taller tree, produces a larger smooth-skinned fruit up to 15 inches long and can weigh 10 to 15 pounds. The flesh is yellow, orange or pink. The taste is appealing but less sweet than the Hawaiian papaya.
Pear-shaped and much smaller in size, the Hawaiian papaya fruit weighs about 1 pound and is 7 to 8 inches long. The flesh is usually yellow with orange to red tones with a butter-like texture and a very sweet, musky taste.
Both kinds of papayas contain a large number of small, black edible seeds found in a gelatin substance at the center of the papaya. The seeds have a spicy, peppery flavor.
Store-bought Hawaiian papayas usually contain bisexual seeds. These would be the best choice for planting in your garden. Then again, if you want to be sure to produce fruit, you should plant two to four seedlings.
Nutritional, reported medicinal uses
Papayas are very high on the list of fruits with good nutritional value. They are excellent sources of antioxidants, including carotenes, vitamins A, B-complex, C and folates. They contain potassium, copper, magnesium and fiber. Papayas contain an enzyme called papain, which helps in the digestion of proteins and is used as a meat tenderizer.
Studies show papaya may have preventive affects in cardiovascular disease, colon cancer, inflammatory diseases and rheumatoid arthritis. Papayas also contain latex, which may cause an allergic reaction in some people.
With such high nutritional value and reported medicinal uses, maybe papayas rather than apples should have gotten the label "a papaya a day keeps the doctor away." Try some papaya and see if you agree with Christopher Columbus.
The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or firstname.lastname@example.org.