You say pawpaw, I say papaya…

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Virgil Evetts

It’s that time of year when seasonal fruit are all but absent from the garden and fruit shop unless you count citrus, which I’ve now had my fill of well and truly. And don’t insult me with  mention of California stone fruit either.

Normally around now I’d be harvesting bananas but the summer drought dissuaded my trees from flowering this year. Thank God then, for that queen of the cool-climate papaya clan, the Babaco. My tree is currently holding about 20 kilos of the dusky green torpedoes, and is thoughtfully dispensing them to ripeness one at time.

There is a great deal of confusion about the names of the various plants called pawpaw and papaya in New Zealand, so here’s my attempt to offer some clarity on the matter. Irrespective of which member of the papaya clan you are dealing with, they are a fruit for unadulterated enjoyment only, except, perhaps, a little sugar in the case of the babaco, and limejuice with tropical papaya.  Do not bake with them, do not bottle them; just enjoy their simple charms unaffected.

Babaco (Carica pentagona)

The babaco is a natural hybrid between a couple of varieties of mountain papaya, but unlike its parent species (a rather underwhelming lot) is a headily fragrant, juicy and flavoursome charmer. Not only is it a welcome supplement to the mostly fruitless winter/spring cusp, but it’s a sensational fruit in its own right. The trees produce fruit all year around but the winter crop tends to be the heaviest.

It’s only fair that I warn you though; babaco do not taste anything at all like tropical papaya. Despite appearances and DNA, they are different beasts entirely. Although comparisons never do justice, the closest I can think of for a babaco is a pineapple crossed with a honey dew melon – but not so sweet. Like all of the papaya clan, Babaco are packed full of vitamins and dietary fibre. They also contain high levels of papain, an enzyme which assists with the digestion of animal protein.  Rather like grapefruit, fresh Babaco is greatly improved by the addition of a little sugar.

There are other hybrid species out there – notably Rainbow Valley and Pabaco.  As yet untested…

Papaya (Carica papaya)

This is the true tropical papaya, as found in supermarkets and fruit shops nation- (and indeed world-) wide. They can be either red- or orange-fleshed, with the latter being the most commonly available in NZ.  In my humble opinion, red-fleshed papaya is by far the better of the two, but I’ve yet to find it outside of the tropics. Influenced by her childhood in Samoa my mother always prescribes fresh papaya for an upset stomach – and very effective it is too. Medicinal properties aside, the papaya is a delicious tropical fruit but sadly it doesn’t grow well in New Zealand. That said, the seeds from those supermarket fruit germinate easily and the plants will grow up to a metre high over the summer months. The trick is getting them through a winter and producing edible fruit.  A few years ago, and after much molly-coddling, I harvested one very small fruit from a tropical papaya grown in my greenhouse before the tree changed sex (as they are wont to do), and I lost interest. You never know your luck though…

Mountain Papaya (Carica pubescens)

Common in gardens all over the upper North Island, theses plants look wonderfully tropical but the fruit is only really edible in the very loosest sense of the word.  Shaped a bit like a small, deformed rugby ball they are more seed than fruit and pack a rather fetid,  gastric aroma and an oddly tomatoe-y flavour. The fruit  makes great chicken food though. Anything labelled as a pawpaw or papaya at a garden centre in New Zealand will probably be this species.  Caveat emptor ,and all.

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)

Although widely used to describe various papaya (carica)species in New Zealand, the name pawpaw actually belongs to a North American fruit related to the cherimoya and soursop. The true American pawpaw is a delicious custard-fleshed fruit with a rich tropical flavour reminiscent of bananas, mango and pineapple. Native to inland parts of North America it can tolerate quite extreme cold (minus 25 Celsius!) and should perform nationwide. That this fruit has never caught on is a mystery to chefs and nurserymen/women worldwide.

All of the plants described here and many, many more are available from Subtropica Nurseries in Waipu. Claire will happily ship plants nationwide.

Also see Russell Fransham’s excellent catalogue at

Russell is probably New Zealands’ most knowledgeable guru on all things subtropical and really nice guy to boot.

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8 thoughts on “You say pawpaw, I say papaya…

  1. A bit annoyed and taken back by the dismissive comments on the mountain pawpaw! I have developed this recipe and method over 3 years
    It is probably one of the nicest stewed fruits I have tasted when prepared correctly. I first wash and peel off all blemishes and a fair bit of the outer skin (if too much is left on the result is a more bitter overall product) . I then hollow the pulp and seeds out and fill the pot with water to level with the top of the pulp. Then boil (stirring to stop sticking) for 10-15 minutes . I then push through a colander to separate seeds from pulp and put aside the pulpy liquid. I then chop the fruit into approx 1cm square sized pieces and add the pulpy liquid and any extra water to just cover the fruit. I also add lime or lemon juice and the lime or lemon zest, sugar to taste (approximately 1/6 of the quantity of fruit) and boil for 15 minutes. It is a bit of work but well worth the effort.

  2. You claim to be a food lover then you slag off a fruit which you have limited experience of and one which obviously does not appeal to your own taste. I have grown mountain papaya for many years and the I find the fruit extremely sweet and with a pleasant aroma. My family all enjoy the pleasant tasting pulp which can also be added to fruit salad to provide some added flavour and aroma. The taste is variable depending on ripeness. My brother had a larger fruited variety growing in the far north which had tasteless fruit without any aroma.

  3. I wish you a good day.
    My name is Ing. Andrej Danek and I live in Slovakia, in the city of Nitra.
    I deal with the planting, duplicating and tending of fruit trees and propagation of new varieties. I do specialize in durable resistant varieties that it is not necessary to spray against pests and diseases. Especially for the species: peach, nectarine, pear, apple, plum and many others. My favorite species are Diospyros kaki, Asimina triloba, interspecific table vines, Actinidia arguta and A. kolomikta, Lonicera kamchatika, Amelanchier spp., amniotic rose; large fruited species like hazelnut, hawthorn (Crataegus spp.), Ukrainian dogwood (Cornus officinalis/mas) and Ziziphus jujuba.
    I own unique varieties of all these species, which are very few extended or unknown at all. I have discovered or tend them by myself and their characteristics prejudge them to be used commercially with success.
    As you know, Slovakia belongs to European Union. I´m not identified with EU policy and the conditions that reigns here. Therefore I decided to travel to New Zealand at November this year. I would like to continue in my work here and bring my discoveries and results with me to share them with everyone interested. I could cooperate with you too, or even work for you, if you are interested. I know all the ways of fruit trees duplication, but hybridization. I´m skilled in vegetative multiplying of plants by grafting, inoculating, cloning by meristem cultures, etc. I´m graduated in this field and I work in this area more than 20 years.

    If you are interested in details just let me know. Thank you for your understanding.
    Your sincerely
    Andrej Danek

  4. Fantastic! I adore the exotic and tropical fruits. Have been after babaco for ages – had friends who grew it when I was staying in Dundein for a few months but never been able to find out much about it up here. Have had great success with growing feijoas but so want to be able to get some babaco, custard apple and papaya up and running. Do you think ChCh conditions would be okay for trying these out? If you have an abundance of babaco, I would pay gladly for you to send some down to me. Craving for some fresh fruit and it is both short in supply and chronically expensive what is available. It is a mystery to me why we can’t get custard apples here in NZ – they are in abundance in Oz, particulary at this time of year, and we import much of their other fruit – melons, strawbs, papaya etc.You never cease to amaze me