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Friday, May 23, 2014

Edible Peace Patch Featured Plant No 1: Powerhouse Papaya

Welcome to the first posting in a series I'll call the 
Edible Peace Patch Featured Plant. 
The first featured plant is one that can be found in many of our schoolyard gardens and is a consistent favorite among the children: 
Carica papaya

C. papaya is a plant-like tree that grows to be 5-10 meters (16 to 30 feet) tall. The leaves are deeply palmately lobed with 7 lobes and grow to be almost 2 ft long. It's leaves drop easily, leaving the characteristic leaf scars along the truck. The flowers are a waxy white and have 5 petals. The fruit is usually between 6 and 18 inches long, has rosy or yellow flesh, and dozens of slimy black seeds in the center. The fruit is ripe when it is soft to the touch and has an orange hue. 

Female flowers of the papaya. Papayas are naturally dioecious, meaning there are separate male and female trees. However, they can change gender quickly depending on environmental factors. This one's a female tree...for now.

Male flowers of the papaya. This ones the male, so pollen will be taken from these flowers to the female flowers, which will then develop into papaya fruits.

Growing conditions:
Papayas grow in frost-free climates, need lots of sunlight, water and nutrient-rich soil. They grow easily from seed, but don't transplant well. If you want to plant one from seed, try making a modified hugelkultur bed like those in our gardens and planting the seeds directly into the ground. Thin the weaker trees out as they grow. For more info on how to grow papayas, check this permaculture site out.
Below is a papaya at our Maximo peace patch:

The papaya plant's original home range stretches from southern Mexico into northern South America, but it is now grown in tropical regions around the world. The papaya ranks 3rd in total tropical fruit production worldwide (15.36% of the market) behind mango and pineapple (another favorite of our students).

What's so special?
For one, the tree's rapid, measurable growth makes it a go-to when discussing the plant life cycle with students. It's easy to find a plant with flowers, unripe, and ripe fruit all on the same tree. This also comes in handy when we teach the children about the parts of the plant, the role of flowers, and pollination.

Papayas are particularly nutritious, too. Besides being high in fiber and minerals, it is a wonderful source of the B vitamins and antioxidants including carotenes, vitamin C, and flavonoids. It's also a great source of the digestive enzyme papain, a molecule that's been isolated and used industrially for brewing, meat tenderizing, pharmaceuticals, and beauty products. That's right, ladies, you can slather mashed papaya on your face for an easy, rejuvenating facial.

You can eat the ripe fruit alone, in salads, or smoothies. The unripe fruit can be eaten raw (like in Thai papaya salad) or cooked. The young leaves can be steamed and eaten like spinach, and some cultures use the flowers in their cuisine. The seeds can be eaten, too, and are sometimes used as a substitute for black peper.

Personal notes: The high enzyme content makes papaya fruits ripen rather quickly, so grab a fresh papaya only if you're prepared to use it in less than a week. Also, I'll be honest, the fruit smells slightly like feet to me, and I've found the only way I can really enjoy eating papaya raw (besides in smoothies) is by smothering fresh slices in lime or lemon juice and sprinkling with salt.

I hope you've learned a little something about this powerhouse fruit growing in our gardens. 
Stay tuned for the Featured Plant No 2: Pineapple!

Garden Program Coordinator