The popular papaya
Shirley Hall Author of The New Caribbean Home Garden Handbook
Papayas are very common in Trinidad. In fact due to bird droppings they easily grow wild. The wild species is very unproductive while new seed types have been genetically engineered that produce fruits from the top to the base of the tree. A papaya or pawpaw is not botanically considered a tree, but an herb that can grow to fifty feet tall. There are many variations and our favourite is called ‘Red Lady’, an oblong fruit up to a foot long with thick very orange flesh. There are also completely round fruits and some that seem to be a cross between both. Papaya’s botanical name is carica papaya. Papaya is also one of the best foods for everyone to eat because the health benefits are fantastic. So try and grow a tree or two at home.
Growing papayas is usually a race to harvest in dry weather as rain and wet soil is its greatest enemy. Papayas need water, but they must be adequately drained. The papaya has an extremely long tap root that helps it get water during the dry season, but also stabilises it against high winds in loose soil. I find it best to buy papaya seedlings even though they have become expensive, usually three dollars. When you are transplanting the seedlings pay careful attention to the tap root. If it breaks the tree will die.
You can save the seeds from a papaya you found especially delicious, fully dry them, and plant them directly into the soil or into a cup to be transplanted later. It usually takes from three to five weeks to germinate. Dipping the dry seeds for fifteen seconds in hot water and then soaking overnight in distilled water will improve the germination rate. The problem with papayas is that there are male and female. The female tend to be self fertilising while the males are sterile and will bear fruit. The male blossom is white and elongated and on the branches while the female has a tint of yellow and is on the plant’s trunk. If you buy transplants from a store they will usually be female bearing trees. Hawaiians are treating their seeds with fungicides. Our neighbours are raising a huge crop of papaya of the new type with fruit everywhere on the stalk and they power mist almost every other day with chemicals. The best soil pH ranges from 5.5 to 6.7. When all the papaya types are accounted for there are really only two, Hawaiian and Mexican. The Mexican variety may grow to twenty pounds. Locally green papayas are used for a base for pepper sauce.
We grow about ten trees in different locations, hoping a few will beat the wet weather. We experimented with growing them in open bottom pots lined with coconut husks to permit the tap root to descend while the plastic gallon pot above ground fights off another natural enemy, the mole cricket. The best place to grow papaya is on a slight slope so it drains rapidly. Start with 12-24-12 as a root generating fertiliser and progress to a bearing fertiliser like 12-12-17-2, but be certain none contain chlorine as it will harm the papaya plant. In Puerto Rico they set two plants per hole while some Hawaiians chop their trees at a certain time to grow two productive stems. We tried it with no success. Space your trees six to eight feet apart so the leaves don’t touch. This is in case one gets a sickness it is unlikely to transfer it by touching leaves. This is a fragile plant, but well worth the effort to grow. As a friend says the best come when you just throw the dry seeds unattended. Papayas love sun and will grow and twist to get as much as possible. Papayas mature in six to nine months.
In Hawaii and South Africa papayas are grown by rooting cuttings from mature plants. In Hawaii they have had success rooting large branches planted a foot deep in the height of the rainy season. However you grow a seedling you must be certain to harden it to the hot sun by gradually lengthening its exposure while in a pot or a bag.
The exact origin of the papaya is unknown, but botanists believe it was native to southern Mexico and Central America. Spanish explorers took seeds to Panama and the the Dominican Republic before 1525 and before the 1600’s this fruit had spread through the Caribbean and South America. The Philippines started growing papaya about 1550 and from there it travelled to India.
Papayas are usually eaten raw. Believe it or not it is best to eat the flesh along with the seeds. As the flesh has such a smooth taste the seeds have a complimenting peppery zest. The next easiest way to consume the nutrients of a papaya is to use a blender and make a smoothie with or without seeds and or sweeten condensed milk.
The intense orangey-pink colour of papaya means it is chock full of cancer fighting carotenoids. Not only beta