Grow papaya in tropical and subtropical regions. Papaya is an evergreen tree that grows 8 to 30 feet tall depending on the variety.
Papayas are native to Mexico and northern South America. In the United States, they are grown in Florida, Texas, Southern California and Hawaii.
There are two types of papaya: Hawaiian or “yellow papaya” and Mexican or “red papaya”.
Yellow, Hawaiian, papaya has yellow skin when ripe. Hawaiian papayas are pear-shaped and commonly weight about one pound. The flesh is bright orange or pinkish depending on the variety. Yellow papaya has a sweet, tropical-flavored when ripe. Yellow papaya trees seldom grow taller than 8 feet.
Red, Mexican, papaya has a red skin when ripe. Mexican papayas are pear to oval-shaped; they are much larger than Hawaiian papayas, up to 15 inches long, and they weigh as much as 10 pounds or more. The flesh of the Mexican papaya can be yellow, orange, or pink. The red papaya is less sweet than the Hawaiian papaya. Mexican papayas commonly grow 10 to 12 feet tall; in tropical regions, they can grow to 30 feet tall.
A ripe papaya will be aromatic and give slightly to gentle pressure. The flesh of ripe papayas is juicy with a buttery consistency. Small black seeds about the size of caviar are clustered at the center of the flesh; the seeds are edible and have a peppery taste.
Papaya picked unripe and green is called “green papaya”. Green papayas have a sour taste.
The papaya tree has a few leafy branches arranged in a spiral at the top of a cylindrical trunk; the trunk is marked by leaf scars similar to the trunk of a palm tree.
Papayas are often served chilled and cut in half and seeded. The flesh can be scooped with a spoon. Skinned and sliced papaya can be added to a fruit salad or compote. Purred ripe papaya can be used in sherbets, ice cream, and beverages. Green unripe papaya can be made into pickles and chutneys.
Best Climate and Site for Growing Papaya
- Papayas grow best where the year-round temperature averages between 70°and 90°F, USDA growing zones 9 to 12. Papaya is very frost sensitive; temperatures below 29°F will damage and may kill the tree.
- Plant papaya in full sun; in partial shade the fruit is not likely to sweeten.
- Plant papaya in a warm spot where there is plenty of sun and heat. Choose a south-facing spot against a wall that reflect heat when possible.
- Avoid planting papaya where there is a constant breeze and avoid planting in low spots that collect cold air. Wind can damage the fruit or topple the tree.
- Papaya grows best in sandy, well-drained soil. Papaya trees will not survive water-logged soil for more than a day. Where the soil can be damp, plant papaya on a mound to ensure good drainage.
- Papayas prefer a soil pH of 5.5 to 6.5.
Choosing the Right Papaya Plant
- Yellow skinned Hawaiian papaya has a richly sweet, tropical flavor; fruit will weigh about one pound. The tree grows to about 8 feet tall.
- Red skinned Mexican papaya has a mellow sweet flavor, less intense than Hawaiian papaya; fruit will weigh about 10 pounds. The tree grows 10 to 12 feet tall.
- Papaya plants grow in three sexes: male, female, and hermaphrodite. Some trees produce only male flowers and so can never bear fruit; some produce only female flowers and require pollination to bear edible fruit; some have both male and female flowers and can self-pollinate.
- The sex of papaya can change during its life; this seems to be triggered by drought and variables in temperature. The tendency to produce male flowers seems to increase at high temperatures.
- Hand pollination is one way to ensure pollination and fruit set.
- Fruits from female trees are rounder and thinner-walled than fruits from hermaphroditic trees.
- A papaya tree can produce as many as 100 fruits in a growing season.
- Prepare a planting site in full sun that is sheltered from a prevailing breeze or wind.
- Work well-rotted compost or manure into the soil.
- Dig a hole half again as deep and twice as wide as the tree’s roots. Add a cupful of all-purpose fertilizer to the bottom of the hole.
- Put a tree stake in place before planting. Drive the stake into the ground to the side of the hole to at least 2 feet deep. Papayas are shallow-rooted; they should be staked at planting time.
- Set the plant in the hole so that the soil mark from the nursery pot on the stem is at the surface level as the surrounding soil. Spread the roots out in all directions.
- Re-fill the hole with half native soil and half aged compost or commercial organic planting mix; firm in the soil so that there are no air pockets among the roots. Water in the soil and create a modest soil basin around the trunk to hold water at watering time.
- Secure the tree to the stake with tree ties.
- After planting, water the tree thoroughly and fertilize with a high-phosphorus liquid starter fertilizer.
Container Growing Papaya
- Papaya can be grown in a container. Choose a container 24 inches wide and deep. Use a citrus or palm potting mix that is well-drained. Choose a dwarf variety to grow.
Papaya Care, Nutrients, and Water
- Papayas need regular water during the growing season, but their roots can not sit in water. Be sure the soil is well-drained. Papayas are susceptible to root rot.
- Keep the soil on the dry side in winter.
- Fertilize papayas with an organic fertilizer slightly higher in phosphorus than nitrogen and potassium–such as 5-10-5. Feed papayas monthly during the growing season.
- Protect papaya from frost. Cover the plant with a frost blanket or erect a frame around the plant and drape clear plastic over the frame to form a mini-greenhouse. Place electric lights inside the frame to provide additional warmth. Mexican papayas are hardier than Hawaiian varieties.
- Papayas do not require pruning.
- Plants yield best on a single trunk; clip away sprouts to ensure a single trunk.
Harvest and Storing Papaya
- Papayas bear fruit within a year of germination
- Ripe papaya turns either yellow or an amber to orange hue depending on the type. A ripe papaya will be aromatic and give slightly to gentle pressure.
- Unripe papaya will ripen at room temperature, but very dark green fruits may not fully ripen.
- Refrigerate ripe papayas in a plastic bag and use within one week.
- Papayas are commonly propagated by seed. Wash the gelatinous covering from the seeds and dry them. Plant the seed in a sterile potting mix. Use 80°F bottom heat to speed germination. Seeds will germinate in 3 to 5 weeks.
- Papayas can be propagated from semi-hardwood cuttings.
Papaya Problems and Control
- Thirps, mites, and whiteflies may attack papaya. These are sap-sucking insects. Spray plants with insecticidal soap or Spinosad spray.
- Fruit flies can attack ripening fruit; set out sticky traps or pheromone traps.
Papaya Varieties to Grow
- ‘Betty’: excellent flavor; very tender flesh; quick to bear fruit.
- ‘Bluestem’: rich flavor; thick flesh; recommend for Florida
- ‘Graham’: excellent flavor; the flesh is firm and juicy; small to medium size fruit; recommended for Texas.
- ‘Kamiya’: very sweet; juicy; small to medium-sized fruit; dwarf tree.
- ‘Mexican Red’: not as sweet as Hawaiian types; rose-colored flesh; medium to very large fruit.
- ‘Mexican Yellow’: very sweet and flavorful; yellow flesh; medium to large fruit, can grow up to 10 pounds.
- ‘Solo’: very sweet; reddish-orange flesh; bisexual flowers.
- ‘Sunrise’ (‘Sunrise Solo’): high sugar content; reddish-orange flesh; plant matures in 9 months to about 3 feet tall.
- ‘Sunset’ (‘Sunset Solo’): very sweet; small to medium-sized, pear-shaped fruit; orange-red skin and flesh; dwarf tree.
- ‘Vista Solo’: sweet in hot weather; yellow skin, orange-yellow flesh; self-fertile.
- ‘Waimanalo’ (‘Waimanalo Solo, X-77’): very good flavor; round fruit; orange-yellow flesh.
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