Sunday, October 12, 2008
The sweet, sweet papaya - a fruit, a salad, a renewal
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel October 6, 2008)
Until I moved to Florida in 1987, I had never tasted a papaya. Back then, if you had handed me a large, oblong, green-skinned fruit with an orange tint and asked me what it was, I might have guessed, "Some kind of melon?"
In a way, I would have been right. Although not actually a melon, papayas share many characteristics with cantaloupe, Crenshaw, Persian and casaba melons. All have soft flesh, seedy centers and a fairly thin, inedible outer skin.
The edible inside portions range from pale yellow to an orange-red and have a smooth texture, mild flavor and natural sweetness. One difference: Melons grow on vines, while papayas grow on trees.
We've grown papayas for about 20 years and now have 26 trees planted around our property. All but four -- those my husband bought from a south Florida nursery -- started as seeds scooped out of other papayas. We cultivate them not only because our family likes the fruit's delicate flavor, but also because papayas are so easy to grow.
You don't need a green thumb or much space to raise these fast-growing, prolific fruiters. Papayas are upright plants that rarely top 20 feet. They also come in dwarf varieties, like the four Ralph recently purchased. These bear fruit on a plant less than 6 feet tall. The dwarf varieties' short sizes make them much easier to harvest.
Most papaya trees have a single trunk shaded by an umbrella-like, leafy canopy. Sometimes, however, multistemmed plants develop. The fruit grows in clusters near the top of the trunk. If left alone, papayas will ripen on the tree, but they also can be picked partially ripe and brought inside to complete the process. On our taller trees, we must climb a ladder to reach the fruit.
I used to plant papayas near the house, but I don't anymore. Its large leaves grow at the end of long stems, and as the plant matures, the lowest leaves and their attached stems yellow and fall off. So a leafy mess is always littering the ground underneath the tree. More mess is left by overlooked papayas that ripen on the tree and drop off.
Fallen fruit attracts squirrels and other rodent family members. They like to nibble through the soft skin to get at the inner flesh. I like papayas but not rats, so my compromise is to plant fruit trees a good distance from the house.
To start a papaya tree, begin with a ripe fruit purchased at the store. You can tell a papaya is ripe if the outer skin has turned from green to a yellow-orange. Cut it in half and scoop out the peppercorn-sized, gray-black seeds. The plant's seeds and even its leaves are edible, but the soft flesh is the main attraction. If you want to grow papayas, eat the fruit and save the seeds for planting.
Before planting, some people say you should first rinse and dry the seeds, but I don't do that. I simply take handfuls of fresh seeds and toss a few into each spot where I want my papaya trees to grow. Choose an irrigated spot that gets plenty of sun and has soil enriched with compost, cow manure or potting soil, and you increase germination chances.
With the seeds dispersed, sprinkle more soil on top and tamp the area down. In about two weeks, young plants will emerge. That's a good time to either thin the sprouts out to one plant every 10 feet or transplant the seedlings to different areas.
It takes less than a year for young sprouts to develop into fruiting trees. The tree not only looks exotic, but yields a versatile, highly nutritious, mild-flavored fruit. Unripe papayas can be cooked like a vegetable. The ripe fruit can be juiced or eaten like a melon. Seeds can be ground up like pepper and used as a spice or made into a salad dressing. Even the leaves can be steamed like spinach.
Papayas are rich in the enzyme papain, which aids in digestion. They are very low in saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium and calories but high in vitamin A, vitamin C and potassium.
For centuries, indigenous people around the world have used all parts of the plant for medicinal purposes. The roots have analgesic properties. The seeds are anti-inflammatory and used to soothe stomachaches and treat fungal infections. The unripe fruit has been used to treat high blood pressure, and ripe papayas applied directly to skin sores are said to provide immediate relief.
I haven't tried any of these folk remedies myself, but I appreciate any plant with so much potential. Cantaloupes may be more familiar to Americans than papayas, but around the world, papayas reign supreme. The next time you're at the grocery, look for these oblong-shaped, orange-tinted fruits and give one a try. If you like the taste, don't toss the seeds -- plant them instead.