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Papaya Tree Tips: Growing Prolific Papayas

Are you interested in growing a tropical fruit tree, but you can’t commit to 20 years of care? Well, look no further than the papaya tree. Papaya trees produce nutritious papaya fruit and have a relatively short lifespan. They’re easy to grow in containers, too!

I don’t know about you, but I adore papaya fruit. It’s something I spring for when it comes to improving digestion, and it’s so good fresh. Green papaya is excellent in Thai salads and ripe fruit is lovely when sliced and served up for breakfast. 

Dried papaya slices are my go-to for long hikes and camping trips. Growing papaya trees is beneficial, not only through enjoying the papayas but also by learning something new in the garden. So let’s discuss how you can grow this lovely tropical tree at home.

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Quick Care Guide

Papaya tree
The papaya tree is a tropical that produces delicious fruit. Source: Bernard DUPONT
Common Name(s)Pawpaw, Okwuru-ezi, Okwuru- bekee, Mgbimgbi, Ibepe
Scientific NameCarica papaya
Days to Harvest120 to 150 days from flower to fruit
LightFull sun
Water1 to 2 inches per week
SoilFertile, well-draining
FertilizerFull-spectrum, balanced every 4 weeks
PestsPapaya mealybug, fruit flies, papaya whitefly
DiseasesPhytophthora fruit rot, Papaya ringspot, Bunchy top, Bacterial canker and decline, Powdery mildew, Cercospora black spot, Black rot, Anthracnose and charcoal spot

All About The Papaya Tree

Fruit on branch
Fruit slowly ripening on the branch. Source: navart

Carica papaya, the papaya tree is also known as paw paw, Okwuru-ezi, Okwuru- bekee, Mgbimgbi among Igbo peoples, and Ibepe among Yoruba peoples. Papaya cultivation began in Central America, Southern Mexico, and South America. Today it’s popular all over the world, with India being the largest producer, and the United States leading the consumption of the fruit. 

The papaya tree grows in rainforests in southern Mexico, or along the coasts of Florida where it rests under tree canopies, thriving for only 3 to 4 years at a time. Afterward, production slows significantly, and trees survive for just a short while longer. They top out at 33 feet tall, where spirally arranged large palmate leaves that are deeply lobed rest on a central trunk which is scarred at the bottom where previous leaves formed. The trunk is hollow, much like a palm tree, and the root system is somewhat shallow. After about 11 months, papaya trees begin blooming small, cream-colored, star-shaped flowers just under the leaves in early spring. All parts of the tree secrete latex. 

In the wild, male plants and female plants must be cross-pollinated, and small fruit forms primarily on a papaya plant in late summer or early fall. Male flowers and flower buds are small, clustered, and sit on inflorescences that have multiple stems. Female flowers are single, with five petals that gather at the base. Flowers of both female and male plants bloom at night, awaiting pollination from wind or insects. There are also hybrid trees that use self-pollinating to produce fruit, and this is the preferred variety of the three possible fruit trees. In cultivation, papayas are often hybrid. 

Papaya fruit is produced under papaya leaves from the leaf axils. Male trees can carry out papaya production, but their ripe fruit isn’t as delicious as the larger female fruit. After successful pollination, the flower of female and bisexual plants ripens and forms papayas – which are technically a berry. Each female papaya grows to about 18 inches long with a 1-foot diameter. Hybrid papayas don’t grow as large, but they do have a smaller seed cavity. This cavity is chock full of round, black, spherical seeds. The developing fruit is green, with white flesh. Ripe fruits are carrot-colored with a pinkish-orange hue. 

Papaya fruit is prized for its phytochemical composition, containing high amounts of vitamins C, A, and E. These vitamins are beneficial for those looking for a source of antioxidants that prevent cholesterol blockages in the human body. The fibrous fruit of papaya plants is excellent for regular digestion and has been traditionally used to treat inflammation related to asthma and arthritis. Recent studies have focused on papaya fruit in relation to reducing the risk of prostate cancer. 

The fruit flesh of green papaya fruit is used in raw salads. My favorite version of this is a Som Tom Thai salad made with green papaya, fish oil, lime, shredded peppers, and carrots. The ripe fruit is delicious sliced or dried, and the latex within the fruit is used to tenderize meat. 

Planting

Sow seeds in mid-spring when the soil is adequately warm. Because papaya trees have a relatively short life span, and a limited period for fruit production, they grow quickly from seeds. However, you’ll need several seeds to obtain healthy sprouts to grow papaya. Sow about 6 to 10 papaya seeds per pot, and ensure it’s large enough to accommodate a tree. About 15 to 20 gallons is the minimum size. Papaya trees have shallow roots, and their seeds should be planted where they will live out their life. 

Plant the seeds in rich, well-draining soil and keep the soil moist. Place it in full sun. For places with cold winters, plant seeds against a south or west-facing wall which absorbs heat during the day and releases it at night. Then as seedlings emerge with young leaves in two weeks, remove the weaker young plants. You can carry out this process in the ground in tropical regions, but ensure the young plants you select are at least 7 to 10 feet apart in their planting location. 

Care

Unripe papayas
Unripe papayas on a young backyard tree. Source: bluesmoon

Once you have established papaya trees, caring for them is easy! Let’s talk about the basic needs of a papaya plant and what you can do to help them grow into mature papaya trees. 

Sun and Temperature

Papaya trees need warmth and full sun to thrive. Give them at least 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight per day. Because it is a tropical plant, it’s grown outdoors easily in USDA zones 9 and 10. Those in other zones should provide shelter for papaya plants, especially in winter. Because the tree gets tall, it may be best to reserve a greenhouse space that has a high humidity level of about 90 to 95%. Ideal growing conditions are between 70 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. These trees will take on damage in freezing temperatures at 31 degrees Fahrenheit, and may die. It’s best to eliminate exposure to cold weather. 

Water and Humidity

Water your Carica papaya every day, providing enough water to keep the soil moist but not waterlogged. Irrigation fluctuations can cause fruit drop and a lessened fruit yield, so keep your schedule consistent. Use drip irrigation or soaker hoses to provide a slow and steady stream of water to your papaya plants. If you don’t have these handy, a watering can applied slowly and steadily works. When it rains a lot, you won’t need to water.  

Soil

You need rich, fertile soil with lots of organic matter to produce papayas. Well-drained soil is a must too, as saturated soil can promote issues with disease. When you plant your papaya seeds in the ground, dig a hole about 1.5 feet across and fill it with a good mix of organic soil and well-rotted compost. Source these from a reputable nursery. Poor soil just won’t cut it, and clay soil should be heavily amended. It’s only possible to use the native soil in tropical areas. Amendments will help, too. The optimal pH range for growing papaya trees is 5.5 to 5.9. In areas where it gets very hot in the summer, spread wood chips around the base of the trees to lock in moisture. 

Fertilizing

Throughout the process of growing papaya trees, continuously add hefty amounts of compost or manure around the base of the tree. Papaya plants are heavy feeders and also benefit from additions of 14-14-14 full spectrum pellet fertilizer that releases slowly at planting, and then again every 4 weeks. A complete fertilizer will provide papaya with the nutrients it needs. Ensure the pellets don’t touch the trunk of the tree, as this will burn it. 

Pruning

Unless there is a significant structural issue with your papaya, it’s best to avoid pruning at all. Most papayas grow from the main trunk, and there won’t be any significant branches to remove. The tree will not drop its green leaves in winter either. 

Propagation

While we covered the main method of papaya propagation in the planting section, let’s cover a few tips for germinating seeds here. When you extract seeds from your papayas, wash them thoroughly and let them dry in a shady place. Plant them in spring when the soil is warm. 

Alternatively, you can plant them in a large container with plastic wrap over them to increase humidity and promote healthier germination. Poke several holes in the wrap to allow air to circulate in and out. Once they sprout, remove the plastic wrap. It’s acceptable to store the washed and dried seeds in an airtight container until planting time. If you’re not sure whether or not your trees are male, female, or hybrid, you will have to wait until they flower. Most grocery store papayas are cross-bred for productivity, and many are hybrid. 

Harvesting and Storing

Trunk heavy with papayas
This trunk is heavily loaded with papayas. Source: ANGEL PARRA VARGAS

Now you’ve done the hard work, and it’s time to reap the benefit of healthy fruit production. Let’s talk about harvesting your papaya fruit trees so you can enjoy the delicious fruit flesh.  

Harvesting

You’ll be ready to harvest papaya fruit trees in about 4 to 5 months from flowering. If you’re growing male and female plants you’ll most likely want to harvest papayas from female trees. Bisexual plants produce papayas on their own. 

There are two ways to harvest the fruit of the papaya. You can let it fully ripen, and harvest it when it’s orange, or developing fruit can be harvested green. Your fruit trees will hold papayas as long as you let them, so for ripe papayas, wait until they are slightly soft to the touch and remove them by hand. Use a ladder if necessary. 

Storing

Papayas do not ripen much after they’ve been harvested, and fresh ripe papayas from your fruit trees will keep for just a few days at room temperature and 5 to 7 days in the refrigerator. Unripe fruit that’s very close to ripe will reach full ripeness within a week or so at room temperature and should be consumed by that time. Ripe papayas can be eaten raw, but unripe papayas should be boiled before consumption to cut down the latex content. Cubed, fresh papaya keeps in the refrigerator for a few days in a sealed plastic container. Canned papaya keeps for 1 to 2 years in a cool, dark place. Dried papaya stored in an airtight container at room temperature keeps for 4 to 12 months.

Troubleshooting

Papaya leaves
A closeup of papaya leaves and how they form. Source: brx0

Your papaya plant is easy to take care of, but there are things to look out for when growing it. Here are a few of those things. 

Growing Problems

If you grow papaya in cold temperatures, it will easily take on cold damage and die. Prevent cold damage by taking your tree out of the cold weather in fall and winter.

If you don’t grow the tree in well-drained soil or if you let the tree sit in conditions where the soil dries often you’ll experience reduced yields and stunted growth. Provide adequate drainage at planting, and consistent irrigation throughout the papaya’s life.

You’ll also have reduced yields without consistent applications of a complete fertilizer every 4 weeks. If you keep in mind that papayas like to grow in tropical conditions in South and Central America, you’ll be well on your way to proper care.  

Pests

The mealybug specific to papaya is a cottony scale insect that sucks the sap from leaves. You’ll see congregations of these insects on leaves where they’ll form a white, fluffy mass. You may also notice ants harvesting their honeydew secretions. They cause stunted growth, leaf deformation, and early flower and papaya drop. Remove leaves that have mealybugs on them, or pop each of the mealybugs off the plant with an alcohol-soaked q-tip and drop them into a container of soapy water. If they persist, use insecticidal soap spray or neem oil spray. Apply these before the sun rises or after dusk in intervals of 7 to 10 business days. Horticultural oils are a useful follow-up for these two controls. Apply them the same way. Control ants in your yard to prevent mealybug protectors.  

The papaya fruit fly consumes papayas, leaving little bruises and wounds on the skin. They also lay their eggs under the skin, reducing yields by 30%. Affected papayas drop from the trees in later stages as well. Prevent them by wrapping the developing papayas with a paper bag when they first form. Applications of horticultural oil in cooler weather can prevent fruit fly development, but do not apply horticultural oils when the weather is over 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Destroy affected papayas. Encourage parasitic wasps which will kill them, or place pheromone traps to see if they’re there. 

Whiteflies generally don’t damage papaya all that much – that is, until there are 3 to 10 per leaf. Sticky traps and removal of affected leaves keep them at bay. A strong stream of water applied to the tree is the first and most effective method. If these methods don’t work, try neem oil in the same way you would apply it to the plant to control mealybugs.  

Diseases

Phytophthora stem rot is a water mold disease that causes lesions on unripe papayas. Later stages of lesions will ooze latex and cause withering papayas, leaf scars, and white mycelium on ripe papayas. Root rot is another sign of disease progression. Prevent these by using proper irrigation techniques and applying copper fungicide every two to four weeks. 

Papaya ringspot virus causes green c-shaped markings on papayas at first and then progresses to light yellow spots in a mosaic pattern. The disease is transmitted by aphids, so control of aphids through a strong stream of water, neem oil applications, and insecticidal soap will help prevent the virus. Once it takes hold, it’s time to remove the entire plant and destroy it to prevent spreading the virus to other trees. You can also cultivate resistant varieties, like Mountain Papaya, to prevent the spread of the virus.   

Bunchy top is a bacterial disease that causes chlorotic leaves, and eventually a bunchy appearance to the tree overall. The bacteria is transmitted by leafhoppers, and controlling them with water, neem, and insecticidal soap will prevent this bacterial infection. There are also resistant varieties. Bunchy top cannot be treated once it becomes systemic in the tree, so it’s important to remove leafhoppers to prevent its spread. If there are high numbers of leafhoppers, it may be best to remove the infected papaya to reduce disease spread. 

Bacterial canker and decline produces water-soaked lesions on leaves and unripe papayas. As the disease progresses, cankers form and ooze along the stems. To prevent it, always sanitize your pruning tools, or avoid pruning papaya altogether. There are no treatments for this disease other than removing bacterially infected plant parts. 

Fungal mildew such as powdery mildew can form on leaves, stems, and papayas if conditions are wet and cool with little sunlight. Prune trees around papaya to provide more light that prevents the disease. Provide adequate fertilization to prevent fungal growth. Copper fungicides can treat an infection as well. 

Cercospora black spot is a fungal disease that makes its way to papaya via other nearby infected plants. Symptoms begin with black spots on papayas and then become raised, causing papayas to ripen yellow rather than orange. The lesions then become white gray as the fungus grows and sporifies. Leaves may turn yellow. Finally, dead leaves drop from the papaya. Applying copper fungicides at the first sign of the disease will control the fungus. Repeat applications every 2 to 3 weeks until the problem ceases. 

Black rot is another fungal disease to look out for. It starts as a small black lesion on papayas that grows and spreads from the outer tissue to the inner tissue. It also causes young papayas to drop from the plant. Dip your newly harvested papayas in hot water at 120 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent the spread. Applying fungicides at the first sign of infection will also treat the issue.  

Anthracnose and charcoal spot appears as papayas ripen in the form of asymmetrical brown water-soaked lesions with light brown margins. Use the same treatments you would for black rot to treat anthracnose.  

Frequently Asked Questions

Papaya foliage
The foliage of Carica papaya grows in a specific pattern, shown here. Source: treegrow

Q: How long does it take for a papaya tree to bear fruit?

A: It takes at least 11 months for the tree to mature, and another 4 to 5 months for papayas to form. 

Q: Do you need 2 papaya trees to get fruit?

A: Unless you are working with bisexual plants, you need a male and female tree for cross-pollination.

Q: What is the lifespan of a papaya tree?

A: They live for roughly 3 to 4 years total.

Q: Is papaya easy to grow?

A: It is! And it grows fast, making it a great choice for tropical growing.