Papaya: Delicious, nutritious and a Florida native?
The first two are without question. But it’s always been assumed that papaya growing wild in Florida’s landscape was non-native, an exotic as it were. That was our impression the first time we saw it growing wild at Broward's Military Trail Natural Area back in 2014. But archeological evidence uncovered about a decade ago in Lee County says otherwise, that papaya, scientifically known as Carica papaya, is native to the Sunshine State.
Oh, and before we continue, we should mention here that papaya is also an extremely utilitarian plant as well, with a variety of medicinal and practical uses.
Some botanical basics. Papaya is a tree, though a rather spindly one. It is unbranched; the leaves and fruit are concentrated at the top, umbrella style. The leaves are large and deeply (semipalmately) lobed. It’s a rapid grower, producing blossoms as early as four months after germinating, and producing fruit within seven to 11 months. They can grow as much as 10 feet in a year and eventually hit 30 feet.
From reproductive standpoint, there are three types of trees: male, female and bisexual. Males cannot produce fruit on their own; females need the presence of males for fertilization in order to bear fruit, while bisexual trees have both male and female flowers on them and produce fruit on their own.
The fruit they produce are actually berries, and can vary from pear size to nearly football size. The skin of the fruit is smooth and thick; the flesh a reddish orange, with a seedy center. The skin turns from green to orange as it ripens.
Papaya is considered native to the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America and South America, but it is believed to have originated in Central America and southern Mexico. In Florida, it’s been found growing wild as far north as St. Johns County, but it’s more widespread in the south end of the Peninsula. It does not tolerate cold well, and that limits its range.
So now the question of nativity. The definition of a native is any living thing that was here when the first Europeans arrived on our shores. Of course, no one maintained a master list at the time, so a bit of detective work is required, and often relies on the observations and writings of early explorers and the work of early naturalists in separating the natives from the non.
William Bartram, an 18th century naturalist from Philadelphia who studied the plants of the Southeast, including Florida, is one of those critical sources. Bartram wrote of encountering papaya growing on a mound of shells along the banks of the St. Johns River in what is now St. Johns County in 1774. Andre Michaux, a French botanist, also recorded finding papaya growing at a similar location 30 miles to the south in modern day Volusia County.
These mounds of shells were likely middens, basically the kitchen waste left by Native Americans, in these cases the Timucua tribe. The explanation for the papaya found growing in these scrap piles: the Timucua ate the fruit and tossed the seeds onto the mounds with other waste. How the Timucua got the papaya is the question. One answer is through trade with the Spanish, which would have gotten the fruit from one of their possessions in the Caribbean or Central America. They also could have gotten it in trade with other native tribes. In other words, the presence of wild papaya growing on those two sites don’t prove much.
But that changed in 2011. According to Daniel Ward, professor emeritus at the University of Florida, archeologists recovered eight papaya seeds found at a Calusa Indian site near Sanibel Island in Lee County. Ward said the seeds dated back to at least 300 AD, about 1200 years before Ponce de Leon explored the Florida peninsula. And remember, the definition of native is a plant here at the time of the first European explorers. Ergo, papaya a Florida native.
Writing in The Palmetto, the newsletter of the Florida Native Plant Society, Ward said it’s most likely that early Floridians brought papaya to the Peninsula through trade with their Caribbean neighbors, but still well before Europeans came here. Ward said it was possible it got here via ocean currents but that doesn't explain how papaya got to upland locations.
Both the Institute for Regional Conservation and the Florida Atlas of Vascular Plants consider papaya to be native; the Flora of North America and the United States Department of Agriculture’s PLANTS database both list papaya as nonnative.
The significance of native status? For most of us not much other than it’s kind of cool to know that papaya is a Florida native. For land managers in Florida, it’s the difference between protecting papaya as a legitimate part of the flora of the Sunshine State and seeing it as one more pest that needs to be eliminated.
As we said above, papaya is incredibly useful plant. The fruit is an excellent source of calcium and has loads of vitamins A, C and E. It’s also a good source of fiber. The trunk, leaves, blossoms and fruit are full of papain and chymopapain, enzymes that are used to tenderize meats.
Ripe papaya can be eaten as is; unripe fruit can be cooked and eaten. So can the leaves. In places, papaya is eaten to both prevent and treat stomach ailments. About the only limitations as to how papaya can be used from a culinary standpoint is imagination.
In Hawaii, it’s used in traditional medicine to aid mothers with “dry breasts.” The leaves are mixed with milk to treat deep cuts. Seminoles apparently did not use papaya medicinally but did eat the fruit.
One more thing: the leaves are full of chemicals called saponins, which are a kind of natural soap. Need a natural wash cloth? Use a papaya leaf.
Papaya is a member of Caricaceae, the papaya family.