by Kyle Sweet, The Sanctuary Golf Club, Florida Master Naturalist
Native to Mexico and norther South America, the Papaya, Carica papaya, has become naturalized throughout the Caribbean islands, Florida, Texas, California and Hawaii. Although not abundant, the Papaya tree can be found all around Southwest Florida, thanks to our tropical climate and sandy, well-drained soils. Temperatures below 29 degrees Fahrenheit can kill a papaya tree and being in standing water for more than 24 hours can also be a lethal punch to this tropical fruit tree.
Papaya is a small, sparsely branched tree, usually with a single stem. It varies widely in height, but can rapidly grow up to 30 feet tall. Leaves, that can get quite large, are spirally arranged and often confined to the top of the trunk, leaving the rest of the trunk to show the scars of leaves and fruits being borne.
Papaya trees grow in three sexes, male, female and bi-sexual. The male plant produces only pollen and no fruit, the female produces small, inedible fruit unless pollinated and the bi-sexual papaya can self-pollinate, thus creating the papayas that are large, edible fruit also known as Paw-Paw. Almost all commercial papaya orchards contain only bi-sexual plants.
Two kind of papayas are commonly grown, one with sweet, red-orange flesh and the other with yellow flesh. Often, the red – fleshed variety is what we purchase in the United States and those are most commonly grown in Mexico and Belize. Varieties of papaya have been genetically modified as a response to Papaya Ringspot Virus that began in Hawaii and spread across the world. With this occurring approximately 20 years ago, papaya became on the first GMO fruits in commercial production.
Without diving too deep into it, it’s important to know that papaya trees are susceptible to a number of viruses, fungi and insect pests, which isn’t surprising due to the tropical conditions that they must grow under. I’ve personally seen and enjoyed the papaya fruit from trees that grow wild along the edges of our golf course property and residences here on the island. If you would like to grow your own and try your luck at this tropical fruit tree that has many culinary uses, there are great online resources to check out, including information from Fort Myers own Edison Winter Estate Home where horticulturalists work with this tree on that exquisite property.
Cool fact: The juice of the unripe papaya fruit is used in the preparation of various remedies for indigestion and in the manufacture of meat tenderizers.