Papaya blossoms smell like secrets. They are incredibly subtle. Everyday, I park my car next to a small grove of gangly papaya trees and it’s only on rare still afternoons that my nose picks up their delicate fragrance. Appropriately sweet for a fruit blossom, quietly spicy – vanilla clove pepper honey – and yet, there is also something deep, almost melancholy in their nature.
Timid, coy, soft… papaya blossoms are so different from the orange blossoms that I so adore.
But these papaya blossoms, they baffle me! Their flowers look and feel fake. Not quite plastic, but they remind me of a decorative wedding cake flower carefully crafted out of white and yellow gumpaste.
I pick their flowers off the ground… no smell at all. I pick them straight off the tree, and more often than not… still no smell, other than that of their latex-y sap.
And yet… and yet… there are these occasional moments when, for a reason unknown, they decide to share their scent with the world. It’s like a secret memo sent out from the fairies that says, “Show time boys and girls! The world needs that extra pzazz that only you can provide!”
Now, I realize many of you don’t have papayas in your garden (thin-blooded like me 😉 papayas prefer to live in tropical/warm climates… places like Central America, India and of course Hawaii).
But for all you nature-appreciators, papayas have some pretty wild features and claims to fame!
A Gender Spectrum
Papaya trees come in four types as identified by their flowers:
– Male flowers.
– Female flowers.
– Both male and female flowers on the same tree.
– Or a “perfect flower” which is a bisexual or hermaphroditic flower with both male and female parts.
– And… to add even more diversity to this mix, some trees may be male or female, but can exhibit varying degrees of maleness or femaleness.
(If you really dig the topic of plant gender diversity, you may like this blog article on “As Many Exceptions As Rules” Plants Aren’t Just Male or Female )
Papaya Tree Offspring
– If the tree is very male inclined, it won’t produce fruit.
– If it’s semi-male, it may fruit, but their fruit is inferior in flavor and texture.
– Those with female flowers will fruit if pollinated by a male tree.
– And lastly, bisexual trees can pollinate themselves (as they have all the parts to get the job done).
So, gardeners wanting papayas don’t want to grow a garden of alpha males. But, I’ve heard that if you chop a papaya tree into a short stump, it can initiate a sex change!
Flavor-wise, most consumers significantly prefer the sweet, juicy flavor of papayas from bisexual trees. And since the hermaphroditic trees can also self-pollinate, that’s what commercial producers grow… and what you’ll find in grocery stores.
Health and body-wise, they’re nutrient rockstars: they’re a great source of Vitamin C. Also, a good source of B vitamins, Vitamin A, folate, potassium, 212 amino acids, several enzymes and fiber. Supportive of the digestive and immune systems. (Just don’t overdo it, let’s just say they can “get things flowing”).
– A superb meat tenderizer. I love making Green Papaya Chicken!
– My husband and I experimented with putting papaya directly onto a centipede bite (tropical life problems) and it seemed to reduce the swelling and helped it heal quite a bit faster than previous, un-papaya-ed bites. I even recommended this treatment to a man who stepped on a poisonous sea urchin at the beach (I hope it helped, those things hurt! And, no, you’re not supposed to pee on it).
Outbreaks in Hawaii and Genetic Modification
– Papayas have been commercially cultivated in Hawaii since about 1910. Then, in the 1990’s there was a particularly widespread outbreak of Papaya Ringspot Virus (PRV) that almost destroyed the local papaya industry.
– This led researchers at the University of Hawaii to develop two varieties of papaya with the DNA of the Ringspot Virus incorporated into their genome to make them resistant to PRV – the Rainbow and SunUp varieties.
– These GMO papayas were first released in the 1998 making them the first GMO food approved and introduced into the food supply in the United States. And in 2012, Japan, historically anti-GMO, gave the okay for Rainbow Papayas to be sold in the country boosting sales for Hawaii growers.
What started as a passing fancy cultivated curiosity and resulted in a research quest.
Did you have any idea papayas were so mysterious… and versatile? I didn’t. And I wouldn’t have been inspired to dive into the world of papaya if those funny little flowers hadn’t seduced me.
May your next encounter with a papaya be an interesting one!