Papaya, Carica papaya, is native to southern Mexico and Central America. The Spanish introduced papaya to southern Asia and from there it has spread to areas with tropical climates around the globe. Commercial production is limited in the U.S. to Hawaii, but India, Mexico and several other countries have commercial exports of papaya or papaya products.
The plant is not a tree, but rather a tall herb that grows to heights of up to 30 feet. It produces a latex, papain, found in the fruit and leaves, that is used to tenderize meat. This extract is also used in numerous industrial processes, as well as the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries.
The fruit may be eaten green or ripe. Green papaya is usually cooked in stews or soups to reduce the latex, but some Thai salads use it sliced raw, in very thin pieces. Its mild flavor can be compared to cucumber. Ripe papaya is most often consumed as fresh fruit.
The fruit is rich in vitamin C (nearly 150 % of daily recommendations) and a good source of vitamin A. Folate, potassium and fiber are abundant. One cup of chopped, ripe papaya fruit is only 62 calories and 11 grams of sugar.
It’s high vitamin C and fiber content, as well as antioxidants, prevent cholesterol build up in arteries. These chemicals also work to reduce inflammation and relieve arthritis.
Vitamin A plays a role in protecting our eyes and the papain helps to improve digestion. Papaya is also known to have several antioxidants, phytonutrients and flavonoids that prevent cancer, especially colon and prostate cancers.
Papaya leaves were studied by the University of Florida – Shands Cancer Center and a tea extract, made with young dried leaves, was found to prevent the growth of several types of cancer cells. Although further studies are needed, we may be just learning the potential of this plant and its health benefits.
Papaya is usually planted from seeds and plants that may be male, female or bi-sexual. In commercial operations, several papayas are planted in a space and the male plants are removed after flowering, leaving one male plant per 10 female plants for pollination. Papaya is usually a backyard plant in the Rio Grande Valley. The plant will freeze when temperatures drop below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, so it needs a protected spot.
They can be susceptible to several diseases and fruit can be damaged by fruit flies. Well drained soils are a must for papaya and it needs regular irrigation, especially during the summer months. More information on growing papaya can be found at: aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/fruit-nut/factsheets/papaya.
Today, the Growing Growers Farmers Market will feature green papaya and will have samples of a green papaya dish, along with recipes using both green and ripe fruit.
This farmers market is located in McAllen’s Firemen’s Park, on the corner of First Street and Business 83. Market hours are 9 a.m. to noon, every Saturday, year round. For information on the market, contact (956) 330-6410.
Barbara Storz is a local horticulturist. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.