To grow papayas, you need only four things: a frost-free climate, oodles of sunshine, plenty of water and excellent soil. If you can give your plant these things, the entire wonderful world of papaya cultivation can be yours.
Papaya trees (Carica papaya) are native to the tropical areas of Mexico and South America. They are currently cultivated in warm areas around the world, including Florida in the United States. Papaya trees are grown for their sweet fruit, called the papaya or pawpaw. It is usually eaten raw without the skin, and is rich in potassium and vitamin A.
Although papayas are large fruits, they grow on small trees that have a definite tropical look. The trees grow fast into woody stems 10 to 12 feet tall and a few inches wide on the top. The trunks are straight and hollow, green or purple in color, with huge leaves emerging from the upper part of the stem in a spiral. The leaf blade, deeply divided into segments, can grow to 2 feet wide.
The trees bear fleshy flowers, some male, some female, some bisexual. Nobody is exactly sure how pollination takes place in papayas. The best guess is that most are wind-pollinated, but thrips and moths may also help.
Two main types of papayas are available in commerce, Hawaiian and Mexican. The fruit of Hawaiian varieties weigh about 1 pound. They are pear-shaped and yellow with orange or pink flesh. Small black seeds cluster in the center of the fruit. Mexican papayas are huge in comparison, weighing up to 10 pounds. The flavor is not quite as intense as the Hawaiian fruit, but also delicious. A mature papaya is juicy, with a flavor not unlike a cantaloupe. It contains a substance called papain that aids in digestion and can help to tenderize meat.
These trees thrive only in subtropical and tropical climates. Grow them in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 10 to 11. Don't try to grow them outside if temperatures in your area ever drop below freezing, since the plants will not tolerate low temperatures.
The plants grow best in a warm, full-sun location. They thrive on heat and sunlight, so give them plenty of both. Papaya trees also like regular meals, so add compost to the soil and fertilize the plants regularly with plant-specific fertilizer containing nitrogen.
They also need considerable amounts of water to keep their large leaves moist. Irrigation is perhaps the most critical aspect of growing papayas. Although they need water, the plants must be kept on the dry side to avoid root rot. And in winter, the papaya plant is better off without any excess water. Be sure their soil has excellent drainage to allow all irrigation to pass through. The soil should be rich in organic content as well.
The fruit is ripe when most of the skin of the papaya changes color and becomes yellow-green. Allow the picked fruit to continue ripening by keeping it at room temperature.