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Papayas (photo courtesy of Vladimir Shulevsky/Photolibrary)
Papayas (photo courtesy of Vladimir Shulevsky/Photolibrary)

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Zones 21-24, H2
Full Sun
Regular Water


Edible fruit, Perennials

It may look like a tree or large shrub, but this tropical American native, known botanically as Carica papaya, is actually a big perennial with hollow stems. Upright, narrow plants grow to 20–25 ft. tall in Hawaii, perhaps half that in California, with a straight stem topped by a 3–6-ft.-wide crown of broad, fanlike leaves on 2-ft.-long stalks. Inconspicuous cream-colored flowers. Fruit—the papaya found in markets—takes 6 to 10 months to ripen, depending on climate; in Hawaii, it is borne throughout the year. Plants produce crops when young.

This heat-loving plant thrives in Hawaii. In California, the key to success is choosing the right location; root rot in cold, wet soil is the principal cause of failure, so locate on a south slope or south side of the house where winter sun can heat soil. Plant will also benefit from reflected heat in winter.

To get the most fruit, keep a few plants coming along each year and remove old ones. Grow three to five plants in a group; you ordinarily need both male and female plants for fruit production, though some types are self-fruitful, producing either bisexual flowers or both male and female flowers.

Varieties with yellow-orange flesh grown primarily in Hawaii include ‘Kapoho’, ‘Solo’, and dwarf ‘Waimanalo’. Types with pinkish flesh grown in Hawaii and California include ‘Sunrise’, ‘Sunset’, and ‘Thai Dwarf’. Varieties grown in Hawaii have pear-shaped fruit to 6–9 in. long and weighing 1–2 lbs. Mexican varieties bear much bigger fruit (to more than 1 ft. long and up to 10 lbs.) with yellow, orange, or pink flesh and a less intense flavor. Harvest papayas of both types when the skin begins to turn yellow; let ripen fully at room temperature. Papaya seeds are edible, with a somewhat peppery flavor.

Two other papayas, both from highland areas of South America, are less widely grown. Mountain papaya (C. pubescens),native to the Andes, can be grown in Zones 21–24, H1, H2. It reaches 10–12 ft. tall; foliageis borne in dense clusters at tops of its multiple trunks. Elaborately lobed, foot-wide leaves are fan-shaped, deeply veined, and sandpapery in texture; they are dark green above, lighter beneath. Small fruit is edible when cooked (it’s unpalatable raw). Male and female plants are needed for fruit set. Babaco is the common name of Ecuadorean native C. heilbornii pentagona, a self-fruitful, naturally occurring hybrid between C. pubescens and another Andean species. It can be grown in Zones 17, 19–24, H1. Plant resembles a dwarf (5–8-ft.-tall) C. papaya. Foot-long, seedless fruit has juicy flesh similar to that of ‘Crenshaw’ melon in color and texture; the unique sweet-tart flavor combines papaya, pineapple, and strawberry. Needs partial shade in hottest climates.

Plant in very well-drained soil. Give regular moisture and apply complete fertilizer every 2 months. Grow from seeds saved from fruit or start with purchased plants. Papayas grow quite well in large containers.

Powdery mildew is treatable with sulfur. Bait for slugs and snails, and fence young plants where deer are prevalent. In Hawaii, papaya is subject to mosaic virus carried by aphids; keep ants (which protect aphids) out of trees and spray for aphids as they appear.

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