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Times of the Islands Magazine

Popular Papayas: Simple Tips for Growing, Harvesting and Enjoying the Tasty Fruit

Nov 23, 2020 05:00PM ● By ERIK ENTWISTLE

One ready to harvest, but not quite ready to eat!

Popular Papayas: Simple tips for growing, harvesting and enjoying the tasty fruit [5 Images] Click Any Image To Expand

Papayas are one of the easiest and most rewarding fruits to grow in Southwest Florida. All you need is a sunny spot with irrigation and good drainage. The following are some simple tips for growing, harvesting and using your very own papayas at home!

You will need to purchase a live plant to get started. Don’t plant papaya seeds, because you may end up with a male plant that will flower but not produce any fruit. We acquired our “Red Lady” cultivar from FruitScapes Fruit Tree Nursery and Fruit Market in Bokeelia, on Pine Island.

The hardware store chains also frequently carry them. One plant should be sufficient to produce huge quantities of fruit.

Make sure that your selected planting location is in full sun, receives regular watering and is well-drained. Potted papayas often “resent” transplanting, so getting the plant in the ground without damaging the roots is essential. The newly transplanted papaya should be monitored closely. If the transplant fails, you can always try again!

Once established, papaya plants grow extremely rapidly and should begin fruiting in the first year of planting. Occasional fertilization will be needed to encourage and maintain healthy growth. Pruning is not necessary, but you may wish to remove any leaves that turn yellow—to keep the plant looking its best. They easily snap off at the base.

Harvest fruit any time after it starts to turn color from dark green to a lighter orange-yellow. Just grab hold of the fruit and twist off the stem. Once the plant becomes too tall to reach the papayas, a fruit picker or hoe may be used to pull down the fruit. 

Fruits that are still partially green may be left on the kitchen counter to finish ripening. Refrigerate once the papayas are ripe—where they will keep for about a week. Papayas produce fruit year round, so part-time residents won’t miss out on the harvest.

Papayas are tough plants, and the massive stem and leaves give the plant a kind of prehistoric look. Our 2-year-old tree fell over in September 2017—courtesy of Hurricane Irma—but then completely regenerated from the trunk, sending out several new shoots that are still producing fruit three years later. Papayas are said to decline after a few years and need to be replaced, so it will be interesting to see how long our “second-chance” papaya remains viable.

As far as pests go, the papaya fruit fly is a frustrating one that you might encounter. Adults deposit eggs inside the immature fruits, and the hatched larvae crawling inside render the fruits inedible. Our initial crop of fruit was affected; we simply removed the offending fruits and since then have not had any more trouble.

There are many ways to enjoy papaya—the simplest being to simply peel and seed the fruit, and then cut the flesh into chunks. Some people like to season the fruit chunks with lime, salt, pepper and cayenne. 

Smoothies are also a great way to use excess papaya, and chunks can be frozen for future use. Don’t overlook the edible black seeds, which are often discarded. They may be blended with the fruit chunks into smoothies, or dehydrated and placed in a pepper grinder. (Their spicy flavor is similar to peppercorns.) Try them and see if you like their unique taste.

In our region, few if any tropical fruits produce as many fruits as quickly as the papaya. So perhaps now is the time to plant a piece of papaya paradise in your own back yard!

Pianist, instructor and musicologist Erik Entwistle lives and teaches on Sanibel Island. He writes the Stay Tuned column for TOTI Media. A favorite hobby is growing vegetables and fruit using sustainable gardening methods.