Pawpaw trees, or papaya as they are also known, are ideal for hot, sunny, summer-rainfall gardens.
Not only are they decorative, but if you are faster than the local wildlife then they will also provide an exotic fruit for the table. Originally from Central America and Mexico, Carica papaya grows in tropical and subtropical areas around the world and is grown for its delicious fruit, while in colder areas it does duty as an attractive leafy houseplant. What’s interesting about pawpaws is that the trees are either male or female, with the females producing fruits. If there are no male trees around the fruit remains unpollinated.
With the help of bees, a female tree can be pollinated even if the nearest male tree is 5km away. A ratio of one male tree for every 10 female trees is recommended. To identify which plants you have, look at the flowers. The female tree’s flowers are bigger and closer to the stem, while male trees bear many smaller flowers that grow on long branches further away from the main stems.
Grow from seed
Pawpaws grow well from seed, which is actually the preferred method of propagation, although they can also be grown from semi-hardwood cuttings. It’s best to plant the seeds in mid- to late-summer, ensuring that they are planted as soon as possible after they are harvested from the fruit because they lose their viability over time. The gel covering of the seeds should be removed before they are planted, which should be in warm potting soil in large containers. The seeds can also be planted in situ. They will germinate in 10 – 15 days, and must not remain in the containers for too long as they have a tap root.
The seedlings do not transplant well so make sure you transplant them carefully and directly into the place where they are to grow to maturity. Growing pawpaw from seed means it is not possible to determine the gender of the plants until they produce flowers. Those plants in nurseries that are labelled with the gender of the tree will have been propagated from cuttings so that buyers can be sure of getting the correct sex.
Pawpaws grow upright, reaching heights of 2 – 6 metres. They need enough water to support their large leaves, but an excess will lead to root rot. It is important to plant them in free-draining, loamy soil, although they will grow in most soils. Grow in full sun. Give each tree a bucket of compost every two months from September to March, and at the same time feed with 2:3:2 fertiliser. Keep the area around each tree well mulched but keep the mulch and compost from touching the trunks. The trunks are soft and must not be damaged as this makes them vulnerable to disease.
Note: The pawpaw plant is not toxic but the sticky white sap can react with the skin of some people. It’s best to avoid the sap where possible.