Tropical Gardening: Papaya another gift from tropical America

  • Photo courtesy of VOLTAIRE MOISE Papaya fruit, now found in markets around the world, probably originated in Central and South America thousands of years ago, where indigenous peoples used not only the fruit, but also the leaves and other parts of the plant.

When you visit the local markets anywhere along the Caribbean coast of Colombia, you will find an abundance of fruit from throughout the tropics. Most, except the banana, have been grown for hundreds and possibly thousands of years by the indigenous people.

Easily recognized are the pineapple, passion fruit, pitaya, avocado and papaya. The latter varies from the small solo fruit we grow in Hawaii to ones almost the size of watermelon. Historically, it was thought to have been spread by early indigenous people, and by the mid 17th century papayas were distributed throughout the tropical world.

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Since papayas are an important part of local diets, it is a good time to grow your own.

Papayas are easy fruit for drier, well-drained soils, but remember the plant is not actually a tree but a big herb. Papaya plants are a natural for almost any garden. They are prolific and nutritious. Probably no other plant supplies the home gardener so much for so little effort. This tropical America tree-like plant will grow and produce fruit the year around with a minimum of care.

Green, unripe papayas are high in papain that helps digestion. The leaves are also high in papain and used in cooking. Ripe fruits are high in calcium and vitamins A and C.

Your garden can supply a generous amount of these delicious fruits. By following modern methods, you can grow many other tropical fruits as well, but one of the best and fastest to produce is papaya.

Start out with good plants, proper attention to fertilizer and moisture needs, and keep insects under control. You’ll harvest some very good fruit that will repay you for your trouble.

There are several varieties, from the big watermelon fruit to the small solo types. Most folks prefer the bisexual or solo strain. This type produces a high percentage of top-quality fruit. Seeds from the large watermelon types produce male, female and bisexual plants. Most of the male plants must be eliminated as soon as they are detected. They are identified by means of their bloom stems. These are sometimes up to more than a foot in length and have many flowers. Female blooms are produced close to the stem but have no pollen bearing stamen. Bisexual flowers have ovary and stamen, thus can self-pollinate.

Occasionally, garden shops and nurseries offer solo papaya plants for sale, and the gardener who needs a few plants will do well to buy his plants rather than attempt to grow them from seed. For larger numbers of plants, you can grow seed from selected fruit. Seed order forms are available from the University of Hawaii Cooperative Extension Service.

The papaya is a relatively short-lived herbaceous plant, reaching a height of 15 or more feet in five years. A top-quality plant should produce more than 150 pounds in a two-year period. But commercial growers often harvest up to 300 pounds from a plant during a two-year period. After that, the plant becomes so tall it is difficult to pick fruit. Production drops rapidly.

Here are some tips for successful papaya production.

Select seeds from a fruit you like or purchase UHCTAHR seed. Plant three of four seeds in individual containers, preferably those from which the plants and soil can be removed without injury to roots. Paper potting cups are OK for planting, as long as they have good drainage.

When seeds begin to sprout, fertilize with a soluble fertilizer once a week, mixing according to the manufacturer’s direction. It takes six to eight weeks to raise plants large enough to set out in permanent locations.

Set plants in sunny permanent locations at least 8 feet apart. The area should receive as much sun as possible. Put about three plants to a hill, 1 foot apart. Keep them there until you determine the sex, then remove the males and weak females.

If the soil in which you are to set young papaya plants is poor, prepare it two weeks ahead of planting by spreading complete garden fertilizer such as 8-8-8, 16-16-16, or 10-30-10 over a 4-square-foot area about the site of each hill and dig the fertilizer into the soil. Wet it down so the fertilizer will dissolve and mix well with the soil.

Soil also must be free of nematodes, which cause root knot damage in papaya.

Fertilize newly set out plants once a week with soluble fertilizer for the first month. Then begin fertilizing with a regular dry garden fertilizer, applying once a month.

The papaya requires large amounts of fertilizer for best production. Spread the fertilizer out over an area roughly covered by the leaves.

A papaya plant won’t thrive in soil that is too dry or poorly drained. Young plants must be kept well-watered until they are established, then watered every four or five days during the dry season. Mulching will help conserve moisture. In wetter areas of the island, irrigation will only be necessary during drought periods.

Pests can give papaya growers trouble. The worst pests are aphids, mites and fruit flies.

There has been no insecticide that will give satisfactory control of the fruit fly in dooryard plantings. Harvesting fruit before they become overripe will help keep damage to a minimum. Sanitation is also important. Do not leave fruit to rot in the garden, thus allowing fruit flies and other unwanted pests to proliferate.

Mites, almost microscopic spider-like creatures, sometimes cause visual damage. This does not usually affect the taste of the fruit.

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Nematodes, microscopic worms that feed on papaya roots, are also a problem. Good fertilization practices and mulching will minimize nematode damage.

With little effort, your papaya plants should reward you with abundance.

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