Papaya is a fast-growing evergreen native to the lowland forests of the American tropics. Although many people think of the papaya plant as a “tree,” it’s actually an herb, as it does not have a woody stem. The papaya bears seven-lobed, palmate leaves and pear-shaped yellow to orange fruits that can be small or weigh up to 11 pounds.
Most of the papaya fruits now sold in supermarkets are produced by a relative of the cultivar ‘Solo’; they are a little larger than a pear and perfect for one or two people. Papaya fruits are not only delicious and nutritious, they’re also valuable for their ability to support digestive health.
Common Names: Papaya
Description: Fast-growing evergreen herb, up to 20 feet tall; seven-lobed, palmate leaves and pear-shaped yellow to orange fruits
Hardiness: To Zone 9
Parts Used: Fruit, leaves, seeds, and stems
Range/Habitat: Lowland tropical forests of South America; cultivated in tropical regions throughout the world
Ripe papayas are an excellent source of vitamins A and C. You can eat them as a fresh fruit or include them in desserts. Unripe, green papayas can be steamed, boiled, or roasted like a vegetable. Papaya’s black peppery-tasting seeds can be added to salads and salad dressings.
The papaya leaf has a place in the kitchen, too. Hundreds of years ago, native Caribbean people noticed that when they wrapped meat in papaya leaves, the meat became more tender. This is due to an enzyme known as papain; it’s found in the white sticky latex of the plant, which is located in the fruit, stems, and leaves. Today, papaya extract is the primary ingredient in many commercially available meat tenderizers.
Papaya contains the enzyme papain, which is similar to the human digestive enzyme pepsin. Eating the ripe fruit and drinking the leaf tea supports digestion and could help protect your stomach from ulcers caused by aspirin and steroid medications. (Papain is also available as a supplement that can be taken to treat indigestion and stomach inflammation.) Papaya leaf tea also might stimulate your immune system.
In Central America, people apply a combination of the ripe fruit and crushed seeds to their skin to heal wounds, cuts, and infections. The papaya’s round black seeds aren’t considered edible (they have a sharp, peppery taste), but people of various cultures have eaten them to treat stomach parasites. The seeds have also been fed to animals as a deworming medication.
Caution: Papaya’s seeds, leaves, and unripe fruit should be avoided during pregnancy. In addition, papaya leaf should not be ingested by children younger than 2 years old.
How to grow it
Papaya “trees” grow in rich, moist soil in full sun, in areas with high humidity and minimum temperatures of 55° to 59°F. Both male and female trees are needed for fruiting, but the cultivar ‘Solo’ produces male and female flowers on one plant. You can buy young nursery-grown trees or start this fast-grower from seed.
When temperatures have warmed to about 75°F and all danger of frost has passed, sow the seeds in a sunny, sheltered location in your garden or in a 15-gallon pot. (Plant papaya where you intend it to grow; it does not transplant well.) Plant extra seeds—you will cull most of the non-fruit-bearing male plants. Amend the soil or potting mix with compost, and water regularly. Feed regularly with a nitrogen-rich fertilizer, such as fish emulsion.
When the plants are about 3 feet tall, they will begin to flower. Pull out all but one of the males (distinguished by their long, thin stalks and small blooms; female blooms are larger and close to the trunk). The trees should begin fruiting about 10 months after you’ve planted them. Harvest the leaves at any time; for fresh eating, harvest fully colored, slightly soft fruit.