If you had to make a short list of tropical fruits to grow and to consume, papaya, Carica papaya, should be at the top of your list. Papaya – commonly called Pawpaw in parts of the world – is a super food whose health benefits outweigh those of many other fruits and vegetables. It is rated as one of the top three most nutritional fruits by many nutritionists. Christopher Columbus called it “the fruit of the angels”. That is a statement worthy of merit and some deep contemplation.
Although the exact area of origin is unknown, papaya is believed to be native to southern Mexico and neighboring Central American countries, possibly even Cost Rica. Its seed dissemination (human-aided) began in 1525 when papaya seeds were first introduced to Panama and to the Dominican Republic, spreading throughout the warmer regions of South and Central America, southern Mexico, the West Indies, the Bahamas, and then to Bermuda by 1616. World-wide dissemination of papaya seeds continued with the Spaniards bringing seed to the Philippines around 1550 and then to India in 1626. Seeds were introduced to Florida from the nearby Bahaman Islands. In Florida, the papaya was grown commercially and commonly found in home gardens up until 1959, when disease and insects finally took its toll on production and caused a major setback in the papaya industry. Papaya is now familiar in nearly all tropical regions of the Old World and the Pacific Islands and has become naturalized in many areas.
Botanically, papaya is classified as an herbaceous, semi-woody plant. Technically, it is not a tree, but is often referred to as a tree. Its solitary trunk is unbranched and can grow to heights of 30 feet/10 meters. Its large and attractive palmate leaves, flowers and fruits are spirally-clustered and produced in the upper third of its trunk. Papayas are typically dioecious, which means that each plant will either produce all male flowers or all female flowers, but not both on the same plant. Male flowers are tubular in shape, whereas female flowers are regular, with 5-petals. Carica papaya is also one of the rare plants that can produce hermaphroditic flowers (has both male and female organs in one flower and can self pollinate). Male plants are only salvaged for pollination purposes.
Papayas are easily grown from seed and produce fruit quicker than many other fruits. When fresh seeds are used, seeds will germinate in 10 to 14 days after planting. Seed germination is faster if the gelatinous-type substance surrounding the seed is removed. Flowers are produced anywhere from 3 – 6 months after seed germination. In another 3-8 months from the initiation of flowering the plant begins to fruit and can continue to bear fruit from 8-20 months afterwards, with the lower fruits on the trunk ripening first. Of course, these times will vary depending on variety and climatic conditions. Plants can remain productive for 3-4 years, although productivity is lower with age.
Here in Costa Rica, the highest concentration of commercial papaya production is in the Caribbean and Northern Zones around Guacimo, Pococi and La Fortuna. On the Pacific coast, highest production areas are Parrita, Orotina and some regions of the Nicoya Peninsula. ‘Lucia’ and ‘Parritena’ are the two most popular Costa Rican varieties, but due to disease and sterility problems new Hawaiian varieties like ‘Sunset’ and ‘Sunrise’ and ‘Maradol’, a Cuban variety, are gaining popularity amongst growers. Papayas can weigh anywhere from less than 1 pound to 22 pounds and one fruit can contain over 1,000 seeds.
The soft and sweet, easily-digestible pulp/flesh of the papaya is very low in calories (just 39 cal/100 g), high in fiber and contains no cholesterol. They are an excellent source of Vitamin C (providing – per 100g – about 103% of the RDA, more than oranges or lemons), Vitamin A (36% of the RDA), Vitamin E (5% of the RDA), potassium (5% of the RDA), Calcium (2.5% of the RDA), beta carotene and lutein. Papaya fruit is also rich in many essential B-complex vitamins such as Folic acid, pyridoxine (vitamin B-6), riboflavin, and thiamin (vitamin B-1). The reddish-orange flesh contains an enzyme called papain, which is a natural digestive aid responsible for the breakdown of protein and cleansing of the digestive tract. This enzyme also helps break down inflamed tissue and is an ingredient found in many modern meat tenderizers. I have discovered that a pinch of papaya mixed with a little juice of limon is the best remedy for insect bites.
The papaya is a very versatile fruit, and although it has mainly been used a delicious and juicy fruit, it can also lend its flavor and texture to dishes like curries and stews. The off-flavor of the raw papaya fruit may not be appealing to everyone’s taste buds, but for a fruit that packs such a powerful nutritional punch and is available year-round in Costa Rica, it is worth exploring new and alternative ways to keep papaya in your daily diet. Combining it with other tropical fruits and herbal teas in smoothies is a sure winner for those with finicky taste buds. The crunchy texture and milder flavor of green papaya (unripe fruit) is a favorite in the culinary world. Picadillo de Papaya Verde is a scrumptious, hash-like dish made here in Costa Rica with green papaya, meat (ground beef or ham), onions, green peppers and cilantro.
Cooking demonstrations offered at the future botanical garden will broaden your horizons and culinary skills on dishes prepared with papaya and our topical fruits collection will provide an extensive exhibit of all the many varieties of tropical fruits that can be successfully grown in this region of the country.
Donna is a Horticulturist and has been living and working in Manuel Antonio for 8 years. She consults, designs, installs and maintains gardens for private homes and hotels and also develops botanical trails. Donna is the founder and was the first Director of the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks and is pursuing the development of a botanical garden in, and for, the Quepos area. [email protected], 2777-5149