Photo | Pepper Woolsey
By Pepper Woolsey, Mobile County Master Gardener / MobileCountyMasterGardeners.org
When I was traveling in Costa Rica, Thailand and Bali, papaya smoothies were ubiquitous, served in the tiniest roadside cafes and beach bungalows to the swankiest 5-star hotels. They were a refreshing and very welcomed respite from the tropical heat. So when I saw papaya plants available last spring in my local big-box garden center, I had to give it a go, if only for nostalgia’s sake. Would they grow in Mobile or were the retailers overly optimistic, more sales-driven than reality-driven? Our area’s hardiness zone 8b (9a along the water) is definitely on the cusp of viability with the plant’s usual range (9-11). I decided it would be worth the risk to relive the carefree backpacking days of my misspent youth and plopped down the $12 each for a couple of 3-gallon plants about 18-24 inches in height.
The Carica papaya cultivar I brought home was the Red Lady, a Mexican variety. Though its origins are in southern Mexico, it has become naturalized around the world. The other major papaya type is the Hawaiian variety, a pear-shaped, orange-tinted fruit that comes in around a pound. It is the variety most sold in grocery stores and is sweeter, though the Mexican variety is quite tasty also with orange or pink flesh when ripe. Mexican papayas are more oblong and larger, topping in at 10 pounds at times, and can have more of a green tint. Being more cold-hardy and easier to grow, Mexican papayas are the variety recommended for the Gulf Coast and typically sold at garden centers and nurseries in our area.
When planting, do yourself a favor and find a south-facing wall with an area that gets plenty of sun. The radiant heat from the wall and protection from winds from the north will raise your chances of success. Short of that location, a sunny location is a must, as they need at least six to eight hours a day to thrive and bear fruit. They also don’t mind our humidity.
Though I purchased a potted plant, papayas can also be easily grown from seed of either variety, with germination rates generally over 95 percent. If you want to go that route, scoop out the seeds of a ripe papaya and let them sit in a small bowl of water for several days until they just start to ferment. Take them out, plant them in some potting soil, thin out the seedlings and let them grow up to a foot tall before transplanting them into the ground when the chance of a spring frost is gone. Select your location wisely, as papayas do not like to be transplanted more than once.
Over the spring and summer, the first papaya I planted grew to over 6 feet in height with a base 8 inches in circumference, the small greenish-white flowers starting to develop fruit under the leaves. Papaya grows quickly when given lots of sun and water, but be sure to ensure their frequent drinks are well-draining, not standing. Fertilize your papaya with a higher phosphorus mix and they will grow.
When Hurricane Sally hit in September, I was worried my two largest plants would not survive, but the papaya came through with hardly a scratch. With my fingers crossed and some bracing to support the now fruit-laden stem leaning over in the water-soaked soil, the plants survived Hurricane Zeta as well.
In winter, a papaya plant needs much less water and is susceptible to root rot if over-watered during the cooler months. Papayas are good container plants and produce well in greenhouses. Like bananas, papayas are not so much trees or even bushes, but giant herbs, so the soft stems are more susceptible to frost damage. To help them over winter, heavily mulch the base, covering it with leaves or wood chips to stop the frost from penetrating the roots. These precautions should help it recover from winters that aren’t too severe.
Also like bananas, a longer growing season is required, one not cut short by earlier, cooler weather. Don’t worry If your papayas don’t fully ripen — green papaya is tasty, and even preferred by many. In Thai cuisine, unripe green papayas are used in a spicy salad called som tam. It is also used in Thai curries such as kaeng som. We harvested a couple of the green papayas, which made their way into our salads. The fruit was on average about 12 inches long and weighed about 8 pounds.
Papayas are not long-lived trees, maxing out at 20 years even in a perfect environment. In our climate, expect them to last no more than four or five years, even without frost damage. However, in those years, hundreds of pounds of fruit will likely be produced. While the leaves of my papaya trees were pelted with the first frost, new growth emerged with the following warm period. The two more severe cold snaps, in the lower 20s, penetrated deeper into the stem even though they were covered and heavily mulched. The plants’ upper areas were damaged; the fruit did not progress further in their ripening cycle and dropped prematurely, which did not bode well for the plants’ survival. I’m still not sure if they will rebound with the warmer spring weather or if they are done for. Time will tell.
So, do not fret Mobilians: Regardless of a more severe winter, you can at least grow some big, green, delicious papayas right here in our river city. Some of you may have the right microclimates to even be able to grow and harvest some fully ripe and sweet fruit for your table. The best of luck and happy gardening!
EDITOR’s NOTE: Pepper has an interesting public Facebook group called “Your Backyard Food Forest” and he earned a permaculture design certification from Oregon State University.
Spring Garden Events
What: Easter Egg Hunts on the Great Lawn
When: March 27
Where: Bellingrath Gardens, 12401 Bellingrath Gardens Road, Theodore
Fee: Adults, $14. Children 5-12, $8.
More info: bellingrath.org
What: Walk the Charles Wood Japanese Garden (walking trail #1)
Where: 700 Forest Hill Drive, Mobile
When: Daylight hours daily
Fee: Free, but donations appreciated
More info: mobilejapanesegarden.com
What: Become a Mobile County MG in 2021
When: Classes run from early August to early November, every Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Where: 1070 Schillinger Road N., Mobile
Fee: For materials used in the 12-week training
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