With little work, papaya plants thrive on the upper Texas Coast
Sweet and colorful papayas are some of the easiest plants to grow. And the single-stem trees, which can reach heights of 30 feet and produce more than 100 delicious fruits each, require little or no care. In fact, many people say their papaya trees emerged in their garden after they dumped seeds into their compost pile.
The soft, fleshy papaya, once considered a rare and exotic fruit, is native to Mexico, although it’s popular in Costa Rica as well as other tropical climates. There are 22 species or varieties. It prefers warm temperatures, and the fruit could die at the first sign of frost. The large leaves, which are edible if sautéed like spinach, grow only on the top of the tree while the papaya buds cling to the trunk until ripe.
“When it gets cold, I wrap my trees with newspaper or old clothes,” said Terry Cuclis, a Galveston County Master Gardener. He and his wife, Velda, have about 20 papayas on their property in Alvin — some more than two decades old — given to them by a friend in the Seychelles islands east of Africa. “The tops will die from the cold, but the tree will live if it gets sunshine but not so much water.”
The papaya actually isn’t a fruit but an oblong berry hanging on to the trunk. They are smooth and green at first, and they change in time to an orange-yellow. Once they reach a generous size, they can be snipped off and allowed to ripen off the tree and out of range of squirrels, raccoons and opossums.
A ripe papaya is sweet to taste, a vibrant color and loaded with healthy benefits for many ailments. The flowers on the trees open at night, emitting a sweet scent.
Papayas grow from the black, round seeds found inside the berry. The seeds also are edible, although some say they taste bitter and peppery. Cuclis includes the seeds in salads “to give it a little personality,” he said.
Papaya trees can be male trees, which produce no fruit; female trees, which need pollen to produce the berries and are rather small; and the hermaphrodite tree, which has both male and female traits and can self-pollinate and produce the larger, more desirable edible papayas.
The harvested papayas are skinned before eaten. Green papayas are edible, but should be cooked first because of a reported latex content. Unripe papaya doesn’t have the sweet taste of the ripened, orange-skinned berries, and in fact, are rather tasteless. But the green papayas will ripen on the counter in a week, Cuclis said. They can be grated and put into salads or many Asian recipes. The ripened papaya, shaped like footballs and bright orange/yellow inside, can be used in many recipes or eaten uncooked, perhaps with a bit of lime juice.
Last summer, Linda Marroquin dumped some rich, composted soil in front of her Galveston house where today an 8-foot-high plant is growing, loaded with papayas in a variety of sizes. She has picked a few and made some salads using recipes from YouTube videos or her imagination, she said.
“This papaya outside my home was a complete accident,” Marroquin said. “I try to do so much for our environment, so all my wet veggie scraps go into a flower garden. One day, I noticed a plant about 18 inches tall with fully formed leaves. I identified it with a phone app and it said it was a papaya. I have nurtured it ever since.”
Last year, Lisa Manuele planted a dwarf papaya plant — Red Lady — in her plot at the San Jacinto Community Garden in Galveston. Now, the 4-foot-high plant is producing small papayas that are sweeter tasting than others she has grown, she said. She makes salads and smoothies with her papayas.
“Because we are in a microclimate, we are fortunate to be able to grow many tropical fruits,” Manuele said. “My favorites that we have gown here in Galveston are passion fruit, sapote, pineapple, banana, papaya and loquat, along with the citrus, of course. I chose to grow my own papaya because they taste so much better right off the tree.”
Manuele adds compost to the soil and perlite, a mined volcanic glass, for drainage, as well as organic fertilizers regularly, she said.
Cuclis usually plants many seeds at once and waits about two weeks to see tiny seedlings emerge, he said. He selects the hardiest of them to grow in his garden. Within six months, they’ll begin flowering and shortly thereafter the buds start appearing. But they take several months to ripen on the tree.
The best plants grow facing south because they like lots of sunshine. Feed the plant with a balanced fertilizer, but don’t water frequently, Cuclis said.
“They don’t like the water, but they like the sun,” he said. “I have lost many trees, but I have seeds from different sources. However, I never labeled them, so they are all just papayas. And good.”