Cultivating Papaya in Florida's Residential Gardens

Papaya Tree

Botanical Profile of Papaya for Home Gardening in Florida

Botanical Name

Carica papaya L.

Common Names

Known as Papaya and Pawpaw in both English and Spanish, referred to as Malakor, Loko, Ma Kuai Thet in Thai, and Du Du in Vietnamese.

Plant Family

Caricaceae

Geographical Roots

Central America is recognized as the birthplace and primary region of diversification.

Plant Relatives

Includes the Mountain Papaya (also known as Chamburo, scientific name Vasconcellea pubescens) and Babaco (Vasconella x heilbornii).

Global Spread

Papaya is cultivated in tropical and subtropical areas worldwide and in temperate regions under protected cultivation.

Historical Journey

Initially introduced to the Caribbean and Southeast Asia, it later spread to India, Oceania, and Africa.

Economic Significance

Papaya stands as a significant commercial crop in tropical and subtropical regions, with extensive exportation to regions where local cultivation is unfeasible. Florida hosts a modest commercial papaya industry.

Invasive Assessment

Carica papaya's potential as an invasive species has not been fully evaluated by the UF/IFAS Assessment of Non-Native Plants in Florida's Natural Areas.

Description of the Papaya Plant

Plant Structure

A towering herbaceous plant, reaching up to 33 ft (10 m), typically short-lived but can survive up to 20 years. It starts with a single trunk and can develop secondary shoots over time. The plant lacks secondary growth (wood).

Foliage

Papaya leaves are palmately-lobed with a lifespan of 6–8 months. Leaf production accelerates in warm weather, with a new leaf emerging weekly, and slows or stops in cooler climates.

Flower Types

Papaya plants are categorized into three types: male, female, and hermaphroditic (bisexual). Fruit production mainly occurs in female and bisexual plants.

Male flowers are small, tubular, and yellow, organized in cymes on long peduncles. Female flowers are larger, yellow to whitish, with a prominent ovary, situated on reduced cymes along the trunk. Bisexual plants bear perfect flowers on reduced cymes along the trunk.

Fruit Characteristics

The papaya fruit is a berry with a thin skin and thick flesh, containing numerous small seeds. Fruit shapes vary from round to pear-shaped, measuring 2 1/3 inch to 18 inches (7–35 cm) in length, and weighing ½ to 22 lbs (0.250–10 kg).

Pollination

Papaya can self-pollinate (in bisexual plants) or be cross-pollinated by insects and wind, with pollinators including honey bees, wasps, and butterflies.

Varieties

Numerous varieties exist, with 'Red Lady', 'Maradol', 'Tainung No. 1', and Solo-types being prominent in the U.S. Seed availability in small quantities is limited for urban gardeners.

Climate Factors

Papaya growth and yield are negatively impacted by various climatic conditions such as cool or cold temperatures, drought, strong winds, or shade. Optimal growth occurs in warm to hot temperatures (70°F–90°F; 21–32°C), with root growth being most efficient when soil temperatures are above 60°F (15.5°C). Papayas are sensitive to freezing temperatures, suffering damage or death below 31°F (-0.6°C). High temperatures above 90°F (32°C) may lead to flower drop, and temperatures below 59°F (15°C) can inhibit flowering or cause misshapen fruit. Regular rainfall is essential for optimal plant growth and fruit production. Adverse weather conditions can significantly reduce plant growth and fruit yield.

Papayas are vulnerable to wind damage, particularly in continuously windy areas. Plants bearing a large amount of developing fruit are especially prone to toppling in high winds, so planting in wind-protected areas is advisable.

Propagation Methods

Papaya is primarily propagated through seeds, with tissue culture and rooted cuttings being less common methods. The plant's sex is genetically determined.

For seed propagation, extract seeds from ripe fruit, remove the sarcotesta (a sac inhibiting germination), rinse thoroughly, dry, and store in a refrigerator. When planting, use 2 to 3 plants per site to ensure fruit production, as seeds may yield female, bisexual, or male plants. Plant 2 to 4 seeds in a 1-gallon container with sterile media, water thoroughly, and place in a warm, sunny spot. After germination, maintain the most vigorous seedling and fertilize every 10 to 14 days. Once seedlings reach 6 to 12 inches tall, transplant them to a sunny location.

Production and Yield

Well-maintained papaya plants may start flowering 4 months after planting, with fruits developing 7 to 11 months later. Yield can vary based on climate, weather conditions, and plant care, with averages ranging from 60 to 80 lbs per tree annually.

Spacing and Pruning

Plant papaya trees in full sun, spacing them 7 to 10 ft apart from other structures. Pruning is generally not necessary as the main growing point is at the top. However, if side shoots develop, select 1 or 2 vigorous ones for growth and remove the rest. Staking these shoots can help support the weight of the fruit and protect against wind damage. Regularly removing dead leaves can reduce fruit scarring and decrease disease and insect issues.

Soil Requirements

Papayas thrive in a variety of well-drained soils, including sands, loams, and rocky soils with a pH range of 4.5 to 8.0.

Planting Guidelines

When planting, choose a healthy nursery tree, avoid root-bound plants, and inspect for pests and diseases. Plant in full sun, avoiding areas prone to flooding. For sandy soils, dig a large hole to facilitate root expansion, backfill, and water immediately. In rockland soil, break up the rock to create a suitable hole. In areas prone to flooding, consider planting on a raised mound.

Care and Maintenance

Regular fertilization and irrigation are key to healthy papaya growth and fruit production. Use a complete fertilizer with nitrogen, phosphate, potash, and magnesium, increasing the amount as trees grow. Adjust watering based on soil type and weather conditions, ensuring adequate moisture without overwatering.

Pest and Disease Management

Common pests include the papaya fruit fly, papaya webworm, papaya whitefly, and two-spotted mite. Control measures include physical removal, water hosing, and using appropriate pest control products. Papaya plants are also susceptible to various diseases like papaya ringspot virus, anthracnose, powdery mildew, phytophthora blight, and corynespora leaf spot. Contact local agricultural extensions for current control recommendations.

Lawn Care and Papaya Trees

Protect papaya trees from lawn care equipment by maintaining a grass-free zone around the trunk. Avoid heavy fertilization and overwatering near papaya trees to prevent adverse effects on fruiting and fruit quality.

Harvest, Ripening, and Storage

Harvest papaya when it starts showing yellow to orange color on the peel. Ripe fruits can be stored in the refrigerator for 4 to 7 days.

Uses and Nutritional Value

Papayas are versatile in culinary uses, suitable for fresh consumption, in salads, drinks, and desserts, or used as a vegetable when unripe. They are low in calories and rich in potassium and vitamin A, offering various health benefits.