Name: papaya, pawpaw, Carica papaya.
Height: up to 10m; dwarf forms up to 3m.
Plant type: evergreen tree.
Climate: tropical, subtropical, warm temperate frost-free zones.
Soil: well-drained and enriched with plenty of organic matter.
Position: full sun.
Foliage: large, heavily lobed leaves.
Flowering and fruiting: papaya trees can be male, female or hermaphrodite (i.e., with male and female reproductive organs on the same flower). Male trees produce clusters of creamy-white flowers on long spikes or ‘panicles’. Female trees have solitary flowers or clusters of larger flowers on shorter stalks. Hermaphrodite trees produce flowers like those of female trees, but they are thinner and have a tubular shape. Papaya fruit is oblong or football-shaped, with green-yellow skin and bright red-orange flesh surrounding an internal cavity of round black seeds.
Feeding: apply fertiliser monthly.
Watering: water regularly, especially in hot, dry conditions.
Papayas are native to lowland tropical areas of Central and South America, so grow best in tropical and subtropical zones. However, they can be grown in warm, temperate frost-free areas. In New Zealand, they typically grow best in a hothouse.
Papayas are fast-growing but generally short-lived evergreen trees. They start producing fruit within a year of planting and are highly productive for a couple of years. After this time, they can start to become too tall and top heavy, leading them to topple over in strong winds. Older trees are also more prone to pests and diseases.
Papaya trees have a single central trunk – usually unbranched – with a crown of heavily-lobed leaves on the ends of long hollow stems that grow in a spiral formation at the top. Fruit forms on the trunk at the base of the leaves.
Papaya and pawpaw are the same species but different cultivars. They can be distinguished by their fruit colour and shape. Papaya is typically pear-shaped with red-orange flesh, while pawpaw is rounder, with yellow skin and flesh. Papaya is also sweeter than pawpaw.
Papaya trees are grown for their fruit, which can be eaten fresh, blended in smoothies or used as an ingredient in baked dishes. Unripened papaya (also known as green papaya) is a key ingredient in Thai or Vietnamese papaya salad.
The trees look exotic and make wonderful feature plants in the garden or a large pot.
Papayas grow well in tropical and subtropical zones and can be planted at any time of the year. In warm, temperate, frost-free areas, plant in spring or early summer to give the tree plenty of time to become established before winter.
Look for hermaphrodite varieties; otherwise, you’ll need a male and a female tree. Store-bought papaya trees are usually hermaphrodite.
Choose a spot in full sun with well-drained soil and protection from strong winds. Dig a hole twice the size of the root ball and to the same depth. Mix in compost and an organic pelletised fertiliser. If the soil drains poorly, mound it up before planting to improve drainage or plant in a raised bed. Position the tree in the centre of the hole, backfill with soil and water in well. Mulch around the base with an organic mulch, like pine bark or sugar cane, keeping it at least 10cm away from the trunk.
After a few years, assess whether the papaya tree is worth keeping or if it’s time to compost it. The tree will continue to grow taller and the fruit will become harder to harvest. To remove, cut it down to ground level and dig out the roots. It’s a good idea to plant a new tree every couple of years to ensure an ongoing supply of fruit.
Water regularly during warm weather but reduce frequency in cool conditions. Feed monthly with a complete organic pelletised fertiliser.
Papaya trees typically bear fruit eight to 10 months after planting. They will continue to flower and fruit throughout the year, provided conditions are warm. In cooler areas, they will stop flowering through winter but start blooming again once the weather warms up.
Pick fruit when the skin is green-yellow and a little soft to the touch. Fruit can also be picked earlier and allowed to ripen indoors. Avoid leaving fruit on the tree for too long, as overripe fruit is mushy and tastes bland.
Papaya trees are prone to root rot, so need to be planted in well-drained soil to help prevent them from getting ‘wet feet’. If the soil is poorly draining, mound it up before planting to improve drainage, or consider growing the tree in a raised garden bed or large pot.
Papayas can also suffer from black spot on the leaves and fruit. It usually only affects the skin and not the flesh of the fruit, provided it hasn’t been left to spread. A regular application of a complete organic fertiliser will help to keep the tree healthy and therefore better able to fight this fungal disease.
Papayas can be propagated from seed or by purchasing new plants. When grown from seed, plants can take 10-18 months to bear fruit. For best results, ensure you only collect or buy seed from self-pollinating hermaphrodite varieties. Here’s how to grow papaya from seed:
1. Scrape seeds out from the fruit, wash them under running water and leave the seeds to air-dry on a paper towel.
2. Choose a sunny spot in the garden with rich, well-drained soil. Seeds need to be sown directly where they are to grow as papaya seedlings don’t like being transplanted.
3. Sow seed, lightly cover, and water in well. Seeds usually germinate in a few weeks.
4. Thin out small, weak seedlings and any excess, leaving the rest. Continue to nurture the trees, watering and feeding regularly.
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