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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

Carica papaya

Edible fruit, Perennials

It may look like a tree or large shrub, but this tropical American native, known botanically as Carica papaya, is actually abig 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 foundin markets—takes 6 to 10 months to ripen, depending on climate; in Hawaii, it is bornethroughout 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 south slope or south side of 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 maleand 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-shapedfruit 6–9 in. long and weighing 1–2 lbs. Mexican varietiesbear much bigger fruit (tomore than 1 ft. long and up to10 lbs.) with yellow, orange, orpink flesh and a less intenseflavor. Harvest papayas of bothtypes when skin begins to turnyellow; let ripen fully at roomtemperature. Papaya seeds areedible, with a somewhat peppery flavor.

Two other papayas, both fromhighland areas of South America, are less widely grown. Mountain papaya (C. pubescens),native to the Andes, can begrown in Zones 21–24, H1, H2.It reaches 10–12 ft. tall; foliageis borne in dense clusters attops 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. × heilborniipentagona, a self-fruitful, naturally occurring hybrid between C. pubescens and anotherAndean species. It can begrown in Zones 17, 19–24, H1.Plant resembles a dwarf (5–8-ft.-tall) C. papaya. Foot-long,seedless fruit has juicy fleshsimilar to that of ‘Crenshaw’melon in color and texture; theunique sweet-tart flavor combines papaya, pineapple, and strawberry. Needs partial shade in hottest climates.

Plant in very well-drained soil. Give regular moisture andapply complete fertilizer every2 months. Grow from seedssaved from fruit or start withpurchased 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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