Plant of the Month

Papaya (Carica papaya)

Papaya tree and fruit at the Bloedel Conservatory.

Native to tropical America, Carica papaya is a semi-woody, short-lived perennial with a hollow, unbranched stem. The Papaya grows to a height of approximately 9 meters (30 feet) and a width of one to two meters (three to six feet) at the top. Leaves are large, broad, fanlike, and deeply lobed on two-foot stalks arranged in a crown atop the stem. Carica papaya reaches maturity within a year, but typically lives only five to six years. As plants are typically male or female, both sexes will are required for pollination and fruit. Fruit is produced throughout the year, but take six to ten months to ripen. Full sun and year-round warmth are a necessity.

Carica papaya blossom. Photo courtesy of H. Zell, Wikimedia Commons

While there are several varieties of papaya, the most common are the Hawaiian and Mexican varieties. The fruit of the Hawaiian variety is pear-shaped, weighs one to two pounds, with a yellow skin and orange or pinkish flesh when ripe. Mexican papayas bear much larger fruit – up to 10 pounds in weight and a foot long, with yellow, orange or pink flesh and a milder flavour. The black seeds of the fruit are edible, and have a bitter, peppery flavour.

Carica papaya fruit. Photo courtesy of H. Zell, Wikimedia Commons

The first written reference to papayas dates back to the early 16th century. Breton’s Dictionaire Caraibe records the name as ”ababai”; Fernández de Oviedo, official chronicler to the Spanish crown, noted papaya as the official name in Hispaniola. The name stuck as the plant was carried west to the Philippines, then across Asia and into Africa in the 16th century. It is now assumed that “papaw” or “pawpaw” was a corruption of papaya. The tree made its way to Brazil where Portuguese colonists, seeing a resemblance in the fruit’s shape to that of a woman’s breast, called it “mamão”; maybe this is where the name “mummy apple” originated.
The Carica papaya contains a watery-white sap that, in turn, contains two important enzymes – one that partially breaks protein down to peptone, a water soluble substance, and the other that further breaks proteins down to their building blocks, amino acids. As a result, papayas have had multiple uses throughout the ages and the world.

A few interesting facts and assorted trivia:
• Natives have used papayas as a remedy for indigestion and digestive problems for centuries.
• South American aboriginals have used the juice of the fruit as a meat tenderizer for hundreds of years.
• The unripe fruit has been historically used in India and Pakistan to induce abortion and provide contraception. Modern research has confirmed these properties; pregnant women are now advised against consuming large amounts of unripe papaya. (Ripe fruit is safe, causing no problems.)
• During the filming of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom Harrison Ford was treated for a ruptured disc by having papain (one of the enzymes discussed above) injected into his back.
• In Guinea, tanners will rub the hide of a freshly-killed animal with wood ash, then wrap it in papaya leaves, then leave it overnight. In the morning, hair is easily removed from the hide.
• Leaves are used as a soap-substitute for laundry, and as effective bleach for soaking clothes. Ash of the burned plant is used to make soap.
For a more exhaustive listing of uses throughout the world, see http://plants.jstor.org/upwta/1_655

References:
1. Brenzel, K. N. (2007). Sunset Western Garden Book. Menlo Park, California: Sunset Publishing Corporation.
2. Entry for Carica papaya Linn [family CARICACEAE]. JSTOR Plant Science.  http://plants.jstor.org/upwta/1_655
3. Chia et al. (1989). Papaya. Hawaii Cooperative Extension Service Commodity Fact Sheet PA-3(A).  www.extento.hawaii.edu/kbase/crop/crops/i_papa.htm
4. History of Papayas. (2007). Papayalovers.com http://www.papayalovers.com/papayas/History+of+Papayas/
5. Papaya Facts and Trivia. (2007). Papayalovers.com  http://www.papayalovers.com/papayas/Papaya+Facts+and+Trivia/

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