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You say pawpaw, I say papaya…

Posted By Virgil Evetts On August 4, 2010 @ 2:22 pm In Blogs | 8 Comments

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.

http://www.subtropica.co.nz/index.php [1]

Also see Russell Fransham’s excellent catalogue at

http://www.subtropical.co.nz/catalogue2.html [2]

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


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[1] http://www.subtropica.co.nz/index.php: http://www.subtropica.co.nz/index.php

[2] http://www.subtropical.co.nz/catalogue2.html: http://www.subtropical.co.nz/catalogue2.html

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