Although I have a flourishing garden, I rarely buy plants. Instead, I beg and gather seeds or wait to see what “volunteers” grow in my yard.
A few months ago, I was surprised to see what looked like a papaya tree. I figured either birds had dropped seeds, or they were in the homemade compost I had recently spread. Either way, the tree was a welcome addition to my backyard “fruit salad” that also includes mangoes, figs, and pineapples.
My first step was to check the internet to see what I needed to know about growing papayas. And the first warning I found was to not transplant them. They have deep roots that can be destroyed by digging.
Despite the warning, I realized mine was in a shady spot with no room to grow. It had to be moved.
My guess is, I got to it when the roots were still small because the move didn’t seem to bother it. After two weeks of hand-watering, it settled in and started to grow … and grow and grow. Today, it is over 15 feet tall.
My next question was whether I had a male or female plant. Yes, you need one of each for papayas to fruit. Turns out, I had a female, but there must have been a male hovering nearby because I soon had long green fruits dangling from the tree’s upper reaches.
Vulnerable to pests
Of course, moving the tree wasn’t my only concern. Searching the internet, I was discouraged by the number of pests and diseases that can attack papayas – including papaya ringspot virus, anthracnose, powdery mildew, papaya webworm, and two-spotted mites.
So as the tree grew like a beanstalk, I kept a lookout but saw no problems. The green papayas hanging from my tree appeared a rich green and healthy-looking. When two started to mature and turn yellow, I carefully climbed a ladder and brought them down, anticipating a slice of sweet fruit.
But cutting into them, I found to my disgust that the cavities of the fruits were lined with a generous helping of white worms – crawling, curling worms.
A quick trip online informed me that my trees had been visited by the papaya fruit fly (Toxotrypana curvicauda). These inject their eggs through the peel into the center of the fruit, where the larvae or worms feed on the ripening flesh.
Discouraged, I learned that the only way to control these flies is this: Before the flies lay their eggs, put each fruit on the tree into a paper bag and secure it.
This sounded like a solution, until I realized I’d have to get up on a ladder to wrap each papaya hanging on my tall tree. And I had no idea where to find 20 paper bags in this age of plastic.
Also, paper didn’t sound like a good idea now that we are in the rainy season. And I wondered about how I’d know when the fruit was ripe without repeatedly climbing the tree and removing the bags.
This all seemed like a lot of effort for fruit from a tree that had volunteered to work for me. I was ready to give up and turn the fruit into compost.
A simple solution
But then I ran into my friend Domingo. Hailing from Guatemala, he told me that people in his country wrap green papayas in newspaper, place them in a warm place, and let them ripen.
In fact, he said, the papayas you purchase in stores are picked green, wrapped in neat brown paper, and shipped to America.
“They use neat paper instead of newspaper so you’ll pay more for the fruit,” he said with a laugh. But either way, you end up with ripe fruit.
I told him I’d split the harvest with him if he’d climb the ladder, pick the fruit, wrap it for me, and then help me cut down the tree. For a supply of juicy papayas, he was kind enough to oblige.
When all the green papayas were on the ground, he helped me pick out one to use for green-papaya salad. I had tasted this Thai favorite on a trip to that country. The salad uses shredded or julienned papaya that’s tossed with fish sauce, hot pepper, sugar, and garlic. It’s a favorite for using green fruit.
He also picked out the papayas that had just a tinge of yellow, to wrap in newspaper and let ripen. These are now sitting in my garage. Soon he’ll be cutting down the tree before it grows any taller.
Lucky for me, I have another volunteer papaya tree that has sprung up in my yard. It’s only about 5 feet tall but already has fruit. That bodes well for an easier and plentiful harvest to come.
By wrapping green papayas that you’ve picked from a tree in newspaper or a paper bag, you concentrate the ethylene gas given off by the fruit; this helps to ripen it. This is the same gas used to ripen green tomatoes as they are shipped in trucks to market.
You can use this same technique to ripen kiwis, avocados, bananas, pears, peaches, tomatoes, persimmons, cantaloupes, honeydews, mangoes, nectarines, plums, tomatoes, and passion fruit.
Because apples and bananas produce high levels of ethylene gas, they can be added to the bag to make the ripening process go even faster.
Once you wrap the fruit, let it sit at room temperature. And check regularly, so you can enjoy the fruit at its prime.
When picking papayas to wrap, choose ones that have just a tinge of yellow on them.
When buying or picking ripe papayas, black spots on the fruit are OK. But if the papaya feels spongy when you squeeze it, don’t buy it. It’s past its prime.
For a spicy treat using papaya, check out Florida Food & Farm’s recipe for Green Papaya Salad.