By: Pepper Woolsey, Mobile County Master Gardener
When I was traveling in Costa Rica, Thailand, and Bali, papaya smoothies were ubiquitous, served in the tiniest roadside cafes and beach bungalows, to the swankiest 5-star hotels. They were a refreshing and very welcomed respite from the tropical heat. So when I saw papaya plants available last spring in my local big box garden center, I had to give it a go, if only for nostalgia’s sake. Would they grow in Mobile or were the retailers overly optimistic, more sales-driven than reality-driven? Our area’s hardiness zone 8b (9a along the water) is definitely on the cusp of viability with their usual range from 9-11. I decided it would be worth the risk to relive the carefree back-packing days of my misspent youth and plopped down the $12 each for a couple of three-gallon plants about 18-24 inches in height. (Photo above by Pepper Woolsey of papayas he grew in Mobile.)
The Carica papaya cultivar I brought home was the Red Lady, a Mexican variety. Though its origins are in southern Mexico, it has become naturalized around the world. The other major papaya type is the Hawaiian variety, a pear shaped, orange tinted fruit that comes in around a pound. It is the variety most sold in grocery stores and is sweeter, though the Mexican variety is quite tasty also with orange or pink flesh when ripe. Mexican papaya are more oblong, larger, topping in at 10 pounds at times, and can have more of a green tint. Being more cold-hardy and easier to grow, Mexican papaya is the variety recommended for the Gulf Coast and typically sold at garden centers and nurseries in our area. When planting, do yourself a favor and find a south facing wall with an area that gets plenty of sun. The radiant heat from the wall and protection from winds from the north will raise your chances of success. Short of that location, a sunny location is a must as they need at least 6-8 hours a day to thrive and bear fruit. They also don’t mind our humidity.
Though I purchased a potted plant, papaya can also be easily grown from seed of either variety, with germination rates generally over 95%. If you want to go that route, scoop out the seeds of a ripe papaya and let them sit in a small bowl of water for several days until they just start to ferment. Take them out, plant them in some potting soil, thin out the seedlings, and let them grow up to a foot tall before transplanting into the ground when the chance of a spring frost is gone. Select your location wisely as papayas do not like to be transplanted more than once.
Over the spring and summer, the first papaya I planted grew to over six feet in height with a base eight inches in circumference, the small greenish-white flowers starting to develop fruit under the leaves. Papaya grows quickly when given lots of sun and water; but ensure their frequent drinks are well draining, not standing. Fertilize your papaya with a higher phosphorus mix and they will grow.
When Hurricane Sally hit in September, I was worried that my two largest plants would not survive; but the papaya came through with hardly a scratch. With my fingers crossed and some bracing to support the now fruit-laden stem leaning over in the water-soaked soil, the plants survived Hurricane Zeta as well.
In winter, a papaya plant needs much less water and is susceptible to root rot if over-watered during the cooler months. Papaya are good container plants and produce well in greenhouses. Like bananas, papaya are not so much trees or even bushes, but giant herbs, so the soft stems are more susceptible to frost damage. To help them overwinter, heavily mulch the base, covering it with leaves or woodchips to stop the frost from penetrating into the roots. These precautions should help it recover from winters that aren’t too severe.
Also like bananas, a longer growing season is required, one not cut short by earlier, cooler weather. Don’t worry If your papaya don’t fully ripen, green papaya is tasty, and even preferred by many. In Thai cuisine, unripe green papayas are used in a spicy salad called som tam. It is also used in Thai curries, such as kaeng som. We did harvest a couple of the green papaya that made their way into our salads. The fruit was on average about twelve inches long and weighed about eight pounds.
Papayas are not long-lived trees, maxing out at twenty years even in a perfect environment. In our climate, expect it to last no more than four or five years, even without frost damage. However, in those years, hundreds of pounds of fruit will likely be produced. While the leaves of my papaya trees were pelted with the first frost, new growth emerged with the following warm period. The two more severe cold snaps, in the lower twenties, penetrated deeper into the stem even though they were covered and heavily mulched. The plants’ upper areas were damaged; the fruit did not progress further in their ripening cycle, and dropped prematurely, which did not bode well for the plants’ survival. I’m still not sure if they will rebound with the warmer spring weather or if they are done for. Time will tell.
So do not fret Mobilians, regardless of a more severe winter, you can at least grow some big, green, delicious papaya right here in our river city. Some of you may have the right microclimates to even be able to grow and harvest some fully ripe and sweet fruit for your table. The best of luck and Happy Gardening!
EDITOR’s NOTE: Pepper has an interesting public Facebook group “Your Backyard Food Forest” and earned a Permaculture Design Certification from Oregon State University.
Spring Garden Events
What: Walk the Mobile Japanese Garden
Accessible entrance through trail #1
Where: 700 Forest Hill Drive, Mobile
When: Daylight hours daily
Fee: Free, but donations appreciated
More info: www.MobileJapaneseGarden.com
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When: Classes (early August-early Nov)
Every Wednesday: 9am - 2:30 pm
Fee: For materials used in 12-week training
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