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Garden of Life:
Papayas: A 90's Kind of Plant

by Marjie Scharff

It’s a tropical scene, bright sunshine, afternoon showers. Butterflies and hummingbirds flit through the sky. They alight on the tall stalk-like trunk of a tree with huge palmate leaves two feet across. Cream colored flowers grow directly on the trunk of one tree, while on a similar tree, streamers of multiple tubular blossoms grow in profusion on a stem often four feet long. In the evening, you notice a lovely aroma filling the air; it smells sweet and lemony. Following the scent leads you to the same trees. This time, large hummingbird moths are darting from one bloom to the other. Inhale, enjoy, and know that, at the end of summer, you will be eating the luscious fruit of this tree--the papaya.

An interesting thing about this plant is that it is really an herb, not a tree, even though it can grow 15 feet tall. Papayas are either male, female, or hermaphrodite and you don’t know which you have until it blooms! The female has one to three large, rounded flowers directly on the trunk; the male has thin, tubular flowers borne on long sprays from the trunk; and the hermaphrodite resembles the male, but can bear fruit like the female.

The fruits are very large, sometimes as large as a football. One serving supplies almost a daily dose of vitamins A and C, as well as being a good source of potassium, which may help prevent high blood pressure.The texture of the fruit is a little like cantaloupe and its color is orange. It is especially good for your digestion because it is the source of an enzyme called papain that breaks down protein foods to a digestible state. Check the ingredients on the meat tenderizer in your pantry and it will be listed.

The papaya seems to have a lot of folklore connected to it in the countries where it grows. In many places it is believed to be part human, perhaps because it takes a female and a male plant to produce fruit. It is rumored that you can turn a male tree into a female tree by lopping off the top third of the plant--especially if this act takes place under a full moon. A slightly naughty Spanish slang expression regarding large breasts is “que papayas.”

Papayas cannot stand freezing weather and require a minimum of nine months from seeding to have ripe fruit. They like lots of water and lots of regular fertilizing in a soil that has good drainage. Adding iron to the soil is also beneficial. Even if your climate doesn’t allow you to plant papayas for fruit, try planting them just to enjoy the beauty of the plant (for however many months they will live). The males are gorgeous and attract butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds.They are “heavy drinkers” and “heavy feeders” and ever so much fun to learn about.


Marjie Scharff loves growing plants of all sorts, from tropical papayas to the living sculpture of cactus. She is a member of the San Antonio Botanical Society and is a Bexar County Master Gardener. She studied journalism at Texas Tech University where she edited the yearbook. She values nature, poetry, quilting and living a peaceful life.

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