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Papaya the Wonder Fruit

PapayaGuest Article for the Tallahassee Democrat

Photo by Trevor Hylton,

November 15, 2013

 By Trevor Hylton

 

A lot of nurseries around here sell papaya plants they are, however, highly frost-sensitive, limiting their production to tropical climates. Our shortened season does not usually permit this plant to fruit and ripen before our first killing frost. I have tried many different techniques to keep my plants alive through the winter, I tried defoliating the plant in the fall and wrapping the trunk with a blanket in the winter but that did not work. I was however able to keep a potted plant inside my greenhouse and did get a ripe fruit the next season. Growing in container is not very easy because plants tend to become root- bound quickly.

Because of a mild winter last year and a very strategic location this plant being protected by the building has been able to hold its fruits from last year and in late fall this year you can see it is about to ripen. Papaya will only ripen after green harvesting if they are fully mature, unlike some fruits like mango and banana which will ripen even when they are not mature.

Papaya is a somewhat unique plant, there are three basic sexes; male, female and hermaphrodite (bisexual).  Genetically, there are a total of six combinations that produce these three sexes.  Some male trees can produce fruit on the first flower of the cluster but seeds from it results in male trees.  A female tree crossed with a male should produce 50% males and 50% females.  A hermaphrodite crossed with a hermaphrodite should produce 50% hermaphrodites and 50% females but a hermaphrodite crossed with a male should produce 33.3% males, 33.3% females and 33.3% hermaphrodites.

Flower type is determined by the presence or absence of functional stamens (male parts) and stigma and ovary (female parts). Female flowers are relatively large and rounded at the base. They have a stigma but lack stamens. They generally must receive pollen in order to set fruit. Pollination may occur as a result of wind or by insects. Male flowers are thin and tubular. They have perfect structure (i.e., they contain both male and female organs), but the ovary is nonfunctional. Male flowers are usually borne on a long flower stalk. Hermaphrodite flowers are intermediate between female and male flowers in size and shape. They are less rounded than female flowers, but not as thin as male flowers. They have perfect structure with functional stigma and stamens and usually are self-pollinating. Hermaphrodite plants may have male, and/or hermaphrodite flowers, depending on environmental conditions and the time of year. Hot, dry weather may cause destruction of the ovary and the production of female-sterile (i.e., male) flowers; this why sometimes hermaphrodite plants do not set fruit.

The fruit texture and quality of a hermaphrodite and female plants have similar. If you could have only one fruit tree on your property I would suggest a papaya tree because of the versatility of the fruit, the nutritional content and medicinal value.

The green fruit is often stewed or baked and used as a substitute for squash; the green fruit as well as other parts of the plant contain a powerful protein digesting enzyme called pepsin. Papaya is very rich in Potassium, Magnesium and Calcium and is the most alkaline fruit. A 100g (3.5 oz.) serving of papaya has 39 calories, compared to banana’s 92 calories. Papayas also contain 16% more vitamin C than oranges and are a good source of vitamin A (about half of that contained in mango). Consumption of the fruit is reported to aid digestion because of the papain content.

Papain a milky latex collected by making incisions in unripe fruits can either be sun-dried or oven-dried and sold in powdered form to be used in beer clarifiers, meat tenderizers, digestion aids.Papain has the ability to dissolve dead tissue without damaging living cells.

The popularity of the Papaya plants in north Florida is not because of their production capacities’ but for their aesthetic appeal. These plants are fast growing with beautiful green foliage having very few pest or disease problems.

Trevor Hylton is an Extension Agent with Florida A&M University and University of Florida IFAS Extension in Leon and Wakulla Counties.  For more information about gardening in our area, visit the UF/ IFAS Leon County Extension website at http://leon.ifas.ufl.edu.  For gardening questions, email us at Ask-A-Mastergardener@leoncountyfl.gov