from the November 10, 2008 Newsletter
written in Yokdzonot, Yucatán, MÉXICO
Papaya trees, CARICA PAPAYA, are native to tropical America so maybe that explains why along roadsides and in abandoned cornfields you see wild papayas. The wild papayas' fruits aren't anywhere as large as those in the picture, though, and though birds such as orioles and woodpeckers love them, humans seldom bother to pick them. Those are wild papaya trees below:
On the left in that composite picture you see a typical female wild papaya tree loaded with immature, eyeball-size fruits, while on the right you see a male tree's very different, diffuse inflorescence of male flowers.
The flower situation in the Papaya Family, the Caricaceae, is much more complex than the plants merely coming in boy and girl trees. Sometimes male and female unisexual flowers appear on the same plant, plus four flower-types are recognized. I don't have it all figured out myself, but at least I can show you unisexual female and unisexual male flowers taken from two wild papaya trees along the road to Mexil, below:
In that composite picture the broken-open blossom on the left is the female. The oval, green item is the ovary, the ovary's white "neck" is the style, and the five fingerlike brown things are the stigmas. Stigmas, style and ovary together constitute the female pistil. Pollen grains will germinate on the stigmas and send rootlike pollen tubes down through the style to ovules inside the ovary, where the male and female sex germs will unite. The ovules will mature into seeds and the ovary into a papaya fruit. The flattish, yellow items are separate petals.
On the right the male flower contains nothing like a pistil, plus its petals are united at their bases to form a slender tube. At the tube's throat you can make out baglike, yellow anthers splitting open to release pollen. Usually anthers are borne on slender filaments but these anthers are practically stemless, or "sessile." An anther and filament together constitute a male stamen.
from the January 16, 2005 Newsletter from the Yucatán,
In my opinion, a papaya isn't perfectly ripe until its husk begins looking almost disagreeable -- the yellow surface browning here and there, even with some spots of white fungus breaking out. Well, you cut off that part and eat the perfect stuff inside. I say "in my opinion" because I'm always astonished at how many people think that a banana with brown spots is beyond eating. "In my opinion," bananas are at their best as brown spots begin appearing, and purely yellow bananas are unripe and bitter tasting! But the advertising industry has put it into people's heads that bananas need to be yellow, so what can you do? Possibly the same form of lunacy extends into papaya eating, but I don't know.
Papayas please with much more than their mere taste, texture and appearance. Something in them sets the stomach at ease, and makes your guts smile on a hot, sunny afternoon like we're having now.
That shouldn't surprise us, for traditional cooks have known for millennia to wrap their pigs in papaya leaves before baking them, and even our own culture has realized that papayas contain "the natural meat tenderizer" called papain. Papain helps our stomachs digest things.
Here Papaya trees grow all over the place, both the horticultural kind with big, football-shaped fruits, and others whose fruits are spherical and grow no larger than lemons before yellowing; those we just let the orioles have. Well, the orioles take them whether we want them to or not.
Because I like papayas so much I suggested to Ana María that we plant larage numbers of them. Her reply was that planted papayas nearly never come up. The ones we have just grew on their own accord. The thing to do is to eat your papaya, scatter the seeds, and let nature take its course.
My Maya-speaking friend Don Elías tells me that if you put a papaya's seeds in water, the seeds that will produce trees bearing small, round fruits will float to the top, while the seeds producing trees bearing big fruits will sink. That doesn't make any sense at all, but usually Don Elías knows what he's talking about, so I'm remembering the advice.
What a pleasure walking down our lane at dusk, eating papaya and conscientiously spitting my seeds just everywhere!
A lot of people are surprised that papayas are hollow inside, and that many soft, blackish seeds are attached to the cavity's walls by short, slender, stringlike umbilici. The attachment is so weak that a quick brush with a finger dislodges them. The seeds themselves are so soft that they can be chewed, but they have such a strong peppery taste, like wild cress, that few people bother with them.
Terminology relevant to papaya fruits can be a bit disorienting. For example, botanically, papayas are berries. Technically, a berry is a pulpy fruit developing from a single pistil, containing one or more seeds but no true stone.
Therefore, the term "berry" is much more inclusive than we usually think. Tomatoes are berries, as are oranges, grapes and cucumbers. The concept of "berry" is so general that subcategories have beene defined. Cucumbers, like watermelons -- developed from inferior ovaries so that the resulting fruit is surrounded by a fleshy layer such as the watermelon's rind -- are berries of the "pepo" subcategory. Oranges are specialized berries known as hesperidia. A hesperidium possesses a thickened, leathery rind and juicy pulp divided into segments, the segments corresponding to carpels, or sections, in the original flower's ovary.
If flower terms like "carpel" and "inferior ovary" throw you for a loop you may want to review my flower page at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_stand.htm.
An overview of fruit types is provided at http://www.backyardnature.net/fruits.htm.