Tips for growing your own papayas
Papayas are quick-producing, their fruit pack a powerful punch of nutrients, and a happy tree will reward you with a harvest – all year long. Growing papayas is easy as long as your garden doesn’t get frost. And you could say they are versatile in more ways than one: these trees are known to change their gender!
Papaya trees (Carica papaya) live fast and die hard… Just a few hours of sub-zero temperatures overnight can be lethal. This “vulnerability” makes sense, considering that papayas come from southern Mexico and Central America. They flourish in the tropics and subtropics, where individual trees can produce for up to six years.
Much to our surprise, we’ve even spotted papaya trees in hot, dry and decidely non-tropical parts of our country, where they seem to do well if properly watered and cared for.
It is fairly easy to grow this versatile and nutritious tropical crop in a home garden – and why wouldn’t you? Although papaya is most often associated with breakfast, salads, smoothies and desserts, we show off its versatility in the kitchen on page 110. The green fruit can be used as a vegetable or in salads, or cooked up in stir-fries. Crushed papaya seeds are sometimes used as a substitute for black pepper.
Moreover, papayas offer wonderful health benefits and boost the immune system with their potent cocktail of vitamins A, B and C; minerals such as potassium, magnesium and calcium; various antioxidants; folate; and fibre. The fibre, together with the digestive enzyme papain, makes for improved gut health. Papain is also used in brewing, meat tenderizing, fabric softeners, beauty products, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.
Papayas are polygamous
Papaya trees (almost all commercial varieties) can be classified into three primary sex types: male, female and hermaphrodite (bisexual). If you grow papayas from seed, you’ll have to wait until the plants flower to find out which is which.
What’s more, a tree may temporarily change gender as the temperature rises, typically at the height of summer. At this time, a male tree may become a hermaphrodite with functional pistils, which means it can then pollinate itself and produce fruit. It is also possible for trees to produce male flowers on short stalks at times, or for the papaya to change to female after the tree is topped, or beheaded. >
Female Only female trees bear fruit, but male flowers are required somewhere nearby to pollinate them. Female flowers grow in small clusters or as solitary blooms that are larger than the male flowers, but on shorter stalks closer to the stem. They do not have stamens and can produce fruit (often with a round shape) if pollinated. Trees that are not pollinated may produce small, seedless fruit that are inedible.
Male These trees produce only pollen, not fruit, and can be identified by clusters of small, thin tubular flowers that grow on long branches. Both a stamen, or male organ, and pistil, the female organ, are present in these flowers, but the pistil isn’t functional, and the tree therefore cannot produce fruit. You need only one male tree for every 10 females.
Hermaphrodite Hermaphroditic flowers have both a functioning stamen and pistil, and are therefore capable of producing fruit (often more ovalshaped than the fruit from female trees) because it can pollinate itself. Almost all fruit available commercially come from hermaphrodites. Like male trees, they are susceptible to changing gender.
The right spot and soil Papayas are fastgrowing and prolific fruiters if grown in hot tropical or subtropical areas. Plant your trees in a warm, sunny position and keep them protected from frost and icy winds where necessary. Papayas will grow in most types of soil, but prefer loamy soil that is rich in organic matter and not too acidic – the optimum pH level ranges from 6 to 6,5. The biggest non-negotiable when it comes to soil is good drainage. In clayish soil you can improve a tree’s chances – and prevent root rot – by forming a ridge and then planting the tree on it to avoid waterlogging. Sowing/planting time Papaya trees can be planted at any time of the year, but late summer to early autumn is best.
Planting tips Dig a decent-sized hole, at least twice the size of the bag or pot in which the young tree is growing. Mix soil from the hole with compost and manure, and plant the tree in the centre, taking care not to disturb the roots. When you fill up the hole, hold the tree so that its base is level with the surrounding soil – don’t plant it any deeper than it had been in the container. Leave 1,5 m between plants and 3 m to 4 m between rows to encourage air flow, which will reduce mildew attacks and allow pollinating
insects to roam freely around them. Mulch well after planting and water thoroughly.
Care and water Papayas need surprisingly little water, depending on the weather, but you certainly have to water them at least once a week, perhaps more, particularly in the dry season. The trees will drop their flowers if they do not receive enough water.
They are heavy feeders, however. According to a basic growing guide published by the Agricultural Research Council’s Institute for Tropical and Subtropical Crops, each tree should get a bucketful of good compost or wellrotted manure in September, November and January. Also sprinkle a few handfuls of manure evenly around the tree each month from September to the end of March. NB: Do not apply chicken manure on trees younger than two years, as it can burn the young papaya trees.
Because papayas can grow to 6 m tall; you might have to top your tree to prevent it from growing too tall. This would also encourage branching.
Papaya trees are prone to black leaf spot. Also keep an eye out for aphids, caterpillars and fruit flies.
It’s harvest time!
Papaya trees bloom all year long, so after the first year you should have a constant supply of both fruits and flowers on the tree. These fastgrowing trees often yield fruit in the first year of planting, given the right conditions. A healthy tree can produce its first flowers about four months after planting, and within seven to 11 months it will likely begin to bear fruit. Some trees take a year to do so. The climate does play a role – cold winters slow down the ripening process.
Since there will always be fruit at various stages of growth on a tree, identifying the ripe ones is key. Harvest the fruit just before they ripen, when the skin is about two-thirds golden in colour, and let them ripen indoors. Handle them carefully, because they bruise easily.