Carica papaya: Survivalist plant

Papaya in fruit

Papaya comes from the grocery store, unless you live where it seldom freezes. Then it is another wild edible, naturalized in most warm areas. And there’s more to it than just the fruit. But first, what is it?

Surprisingly there is a debate whether the papaya (Carica papaya  KAIR-rick-uh puh-PYE-yuh))  is a tree or an herb. It seems to meet the expectations of both.  They fudge the difference and call it a giant herbaceous plant, one that can grow 10 feet a year and to 30 feet high.

My first introduction to papaya was a retired postman in Rockledge, Fl., who terraced his very small house lot to grow hundreds of papayas of all kinds and shapes. He was a home-spun naturalist who dug up mastodon teeth on the weekends and grew the largest papayas I’ve ever seen.

The seeds and young leaves are edible, too

Papayas can also surprise you. I grew one for about eight years but had a constant problem with papaya flies ruining the fruit. Yet papayas growing wild on the east coast at Turtle Mound survive elevation, frost, freezes and fruit flies. Like the banana the papaya is more than its fruit, which can be cooked when green or eaten raw when ripe. The young leaves and flowers are edible boiled, and the inner pith of the main stalk is edible raw. The roots are edible if boiled a long time. And if you run out of soapy washcloths the older leaves have saponins and can be used as a wash cloth.  Now, let’s go where few have gone.

First, the papaya is a berry. Yeph a berry. And it is in the family as maypops, Passifloras, which makes sense as the leaf and fruit structure are similar. Most folks toss the black seeds away but they are edible, too.  They are peppery and can be used like pepper. They also stay viable for three years. Papayas are native to Central American and moved around the world with Spanish exploration in the 1500’s. Surprisingly the papaya did not get to Florida until the 1900’s from the Bahamas.  Not bad for a runt. You see, papaya was domesticated in Central America from weedy and almost inedible original plant. It has experienced significant changes in fruit size, growth habit, and flesh color under human cultivation. It was first mentioned in 1526 by Oviedo.

Papaya blossoms

Papayas pack a nutritional wallop: Per 100 gram edible portion papayas are water 88%, calories 43, protein 0.6%, fat 0.1%, carbs 10%, crude Fiber 0.1% and provides of the of US RDA*  48% Vitamin A; 3.6% Thiamin, B1; 8.1% Riboflavin, B2; 2.2% Niacin; 80% Vitamin C; 2.4% Calcium; 1.6% Phosphorus; 3% iron; 5% Potassium.

The only real confusing thing about papayas is their sex and reproduction.  They are male, female and bisexual. The females and hermaphrodites make fruit but you need one male plant for every 10 of the others. On the male plant the flowers are on stems. On the female the flowers are directly on the main trunk  (see above.)

Carica comes from the Greek word karike, which was a kind of fig. The papaya was called that because of its fig-like leaves.  Papaya is what the Caribs called the papaya. Some times it is wrongly called a pawpaw or papaw.

Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile

Educational

IDENTIFICATION: A large, single-stemmed herbaceous plant, to 30 feet, leaves are very large, up to 2 ½ feet wide, palmate (hand shaped) stems one to three feet. Trunk to a foot thick, with prominent leaf scars. Flowerswaxy, ivory white on trunk Fruit larger to 20 pounds, oval to round, central seed cavity with black seeds. Fruit born on main stem, flesh is yellow-orange to salmon at maturity. Plants begin bearing in 6-12 months.

TIME OF YEAR: In tropical climes nearly continuously, in more temperate areas late summer through the winter if no frost or freeze.

ENVIRONMENT: An opportunist, it likes good soil, water and sun.  Trash heaps, middens, old homesteads, margins.

METHOD OF PREPARATION: Ripe fruit raw, unripe fruit cooked;  young leaves and flowers boiled, roots boiled a long time, inner pith of main trunk raw.

 

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Chris Charvat April 3, 2013 at 22:42

live in the Peruvian Amazon and would like to know all of the edible plants here. Of course I know the obvious ones but I am sure there are many more I don´t know. Loved the information on the papya tree. We eat the fruit but had no idea the leaves where edible too. I hunger for more greens in my diet.

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2 Sam Vedder April 13, 2013 at 19:45

When you say the unripe fruit is cooked, how would you recommend cooking it?

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3 Jay April 28, 2013 at 18:40

Sam,

There’s no limit to the “green” papaya recipes you can find online. You can essentially use it as a substitute for potatoes in most recipes. There are many ethnic dishes that use it, but cooking can be as simple as dicing and stir frying in a small amount of oil and salt. One of my favorite American style recipes is papaya hashbrowns. Shredded, pan fried papayas also work great in an omelette or quiche.

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4 Amy April 29, 2013 at 20:08

Green papayas taste great when cooked with aromatics. Peel and seed the papaya and cut into one inch cubes or diagonals. Fry some garlic, onion and ginger strips, add chicken broth, season with sea salt, then add the cut-up green papaya and cook for 10 minutes. Depending on how much chicken broth or stock you add, this makes a great vegetable soup or stew. You can also add spinach, amaranth, nasturtium, pepper or moringga leaves to this dish.

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5 Kim May 2, 2013 at 14:28

We used to have a papaya tree in our yard in Malaysia. My mum used the leaves (older) to wrap it around pig intestine and boil it softly in water. It made the flesh more tender. We have stopped eating pork for many years now but my point is you could use the leaves to tenderize your meat.

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6 Bernhardt Adjedi November 12, 2013 at 17:54

Kim,
I will please want to know why you emphasized, “We have stopped eating pork for many years now” the reply might be of mutual benefit. Thanks

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7 kayedeanC March 9, 2014 at 19:43

i would like to know if wild papaya is different from the regular papaya

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8 Green Deane March 10, 2014 at 08:26

As far as I know, no.

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9 Jenny March 23, 2014 at 06:53

A berry? Wow! I never would have guessed. I loved eating papaya on my travels through the tropics but unfortunately it’s not available in my current location.

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