Ever Green

By Lois Taylor

Friday, September 24, 1999

File photo
While the papaya tree is not an asset to your landscaping, the
fruit is tasty and harvesting your own will certainly
help your pocketbook.

Plant a backyard
papaya grove

HOME gardeners are having bountiful crops right now of both avocados and papayas. If you aren't in on the papaya harvest and are buying them in the market, think about planting your own trees. They don't take much space, and they bear in 8 months from planting. Avocado trees, on the other hand, take up most of an urban backyard, and if grown from seed, take up to 12 years before bearing fruit. Since we have only five more columns, we haven't got time to worry about avocados.

The only problem with a papaya tree is that it doesn't add much to the landscaping -- the trees are scrawny with the fruit growing off the trunk and a clutch of 2-foot leaves feathering out near the top. It doesn't give shade, and the trees really should be replaced every six or seven years for the best fruit, but you don't need to plant them at the front door. Out behind the carport or where you stow the rubbish cans are perfectly fine places for your papaya plantation.

For home gardeners, the University of Hawaii's Cooperative Extension Division recommends solo types named "Waimanalo," "Sunset," "Kapoho" and "Sunrise" as among their best cultivars. The solo papaya, imported to Hawaii in 1919, is the most popular for the flavor of its fruit. The name comes from the idea that a solo or single papaya can be eaten by one person at a sitting. That's a lot of papaya, but earlier varieties were much larger and less flavorful.

The solo variety produces three types of trees -- the female, the male and the hermaphrodite. Only the hermaphrodite bears flowers with both male and female parts and is self-pollinating It bears the best and the most fruit, and that's the tree you want.

If you have a healthy, vigorous papaya tree that flowers profusely but fails to set fruit or produces golf ball sized fruit that falls off the tree, you have a female tree that has not been pollinated. It requires pollination from a hermaphrodite papaya tree, and will then produce a round fruit about the size of a softball. The male papaya generally doesn't fruit at all. So you don't want a male and you don't want a female, you want a hermaphrodite tree. But how can you tell? It's not like puppies.

When you buy seeds or even seedlings of any papaya tree, it's anybody's guess. Plant nurseries selling seedlings won't guarantee any particular sex because you can't tell until the seedling flowers. Even if you use seeds from ripe fruit from a tree with good production, you still don't know.

If it doesn't flower at all when it has been in the ground for six months, it's a male. If the flower is fairly round with five separate petals fused around a tiny fruit at the base, it's a female. If the flower is tubular with both a small fruit, or ovary, and a stamen, a slender stalk encircling the ovary, it is an hermaphrodite.

Papaya seeds or seedlings should be planted in well-drained soil, high in organic matter because they grow quickly and need a steady supply of nutrients and moisture to thrive. Sunny areas protected from the wind are best. The root system of a papaya tree is delicate, and is apt to rot with over-watering.

If you are starting with seeds, plant five to 10 seeds in the planting hole, cover them with 1/4-inch of soil and keep it moist. The seeds will germinate in about two weeks. Planting holes should be spaced 6 to 10 feet apart. After 6 to 8 weeks, the plants should be thinned, retaining only two or three of the strongest in each hole. Then wait until they flower.

If you are starting with seedlings from a nursery, the university recommends planting four or five in each hole, and allowing them to grow until they flower at about six months. Then you get tough. Identify the flowers, and both the males and females and all but one hermaphrodite in each planting hole should be pulled up and thrown into the compost. You do have compost, don't you?

When the surviving hermaphrodite plants are young, water three times a week. Once the trees begin to bear, cut back to twice a week, but don't let the soil dry out or the flowers may develop into sterile females and the lower leaves will turn yellow and drop off.

The university recommends a balanced fertilizer such as 10-10-10 or 16-16-16 at the rate of 1/4 pound per tree every month until the tree flowers. As the fruit appears, apply 3/4 pound of fruit tree fertilizer every eight weeks. The fertilizer should be applied around the drip line of the tree, and then it should be watered thoroughly.

Aphids and thrips can be controlled with Malathion spray. The most destructive disease of the tree is the ring spot virus, and the only control is to pull it up. The university's new papaya varieties, however, are developing a resistance to the virus.

Harvest the green fruit when there is a slight tinge of yellow at the blossom end, and allow them to ripen in your kitchen. Tree-ripened fruit is not a good idea, because the birds and the fruit flies will get there first. A healthy tree should bear its best crops during its first three or four years, and should be cut down and replaced every six years. And the price of papayas at $1.69 a pound will no longer concern you.

Do It Electric!

Gardening Calendar in Do It Electric!

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Evergreen by Lois Taylor, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu 96802.
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