Papaya - Carica papaya - sometimes known as melon tree or pawpaw*.

The papaya tree is indigenous to the West Indies and the northern parts of South America, but was quickly introduced to tropical areas of the Old World due to the popularity of its wonderful fruit.

The tree is evergreen and has a very distinctive appearance. It has a tall, narrow green or purplish trunk topped by a spiral of large palmate leaves (up to 75cm across) and is covered in leaf scars further down. The trunk rarely has any side branches, and grows to around 5m (very old trees have been known to reach 10m).

The papaya is dioecious**, and therefore several plants need to be grown together to ensure pollination and a good fruit yield. The male flowers are small and grow in long clusters. The female flowers grow on short stalks in the leaf axils and once the plant is mature enough it produces a copious and continuous supply of fruits.

The fruits (technically berries) start off green but ripen to yellow with shades of red and orange. They have a thin, smooth skin and a sweet layer of delicious pulp, with a taste and texture similar to peach. At the centre of each fruit is a mass of hundreds of pea-sized dark blue/black seeds. The fruits you commonly find in supermarkets are hand-sized but they do grow to around 50cm and can be very heavy. The fruits are best harvested when 80% coloured and then allowed to finish ripening at room temperature for a few days. Unripe fruit may be eaten as a vegetable after peeling, deseeding and boiling.

All parts of the tree, but especially the skin of the fruit, produce a white latex from cut surfaces. The latex contains the proteolytic enzymes papain and chymopapain which are similar to bromelain from pineapples and zingibain from ginger. The latex is commercially harvested, dried and the powder is sold as a meat tenderiser as well as a health food product.

Papaya products have many uses in veterinary and human medicine.

  • Papaya latex and crushed seeds make effective dewormers
  • Treatment of digestive disorders
  • The latex has anti-microbial properties, inhibiting the growth of many pathogenic bacteria, parasites and yeasts
  • It is a purgative
  • It is a sedative and muscle relaxant
  • It is commonly used to treat inflammatory disorders such as asthma, arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis
  • Softening and removal of warts and corns
  • Widely used in skin care products

* The pawpaw is also the name of the fruit of an entirely different plant, Asimina sp..
**Modern cultivars have been developed which bear male and female flowers on the same plant (monoecious)

In some parts of Latin America, including Cuba, papaya has the slang meaning of "pussy". In these areas of the world, the fruit is politely called frutabomba, or "cardboard fruit", to avoid this accurate but vulgar connotation.

Some hold that the fruit of knowledge in the Garden of Eden was a fig. Some say it was an apple. Having tasted all four (ahem), I insist that the delicious forbidden fruit Eve offered Adam was papaya.

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