Although it is often associated by many people with the beautiful, exotic tropical islands of the South Pacific, the papaya is actually believed to have originated in Southern Mexico and neighboring parts of Central America. Early Spanish traders are believed to have introduced the fruit though established trade routes to the Philippines in the late-16th century. From there the papaya made its way to Asia and eventually the rest of the world.
Today, papayas are grown in pretty much every part of the world featuring tropical or subtropical climates which – not coincidentally – are the only places in which most of them will grow. The papaya tree is extremely sensitive to cold weather, and even very limited exposure to below freezing (32 degrees Fahrenheit) temperatures are likely to kill a full-grown tree. The papaya tree also will only thrive in well-drained loose, sandy soil; even small amounts of standing water over the roots will often kill the tree within a day.
Slightly over 13 million tons of papayas are commercially grown every year, with India and Mexico leading the world in production. In the United States Hawaii, Southern California, Florida, and Texas are the leading papaya producers. The majority of papayas offered for sale in US supermarkets come from Hawaii or Mexico. Currently, about three-quarters of all Hawaiian papayas are genetically modified to protect against Papaya Ringspot Virus (PRV).
At their most basic, the papaya is a usually pear-shaped tropical fruit of a tree (Carica papaya) in the Caricaceae family. Papayas will vary in size based on the variety, but will typically have either a sweet red or orange flesh, or a sometimes slightly less sweet yellow or greenish flesh. Comparable to a cantaloupe melon in flavor, both types of papaya will have a thinish skin that is edible (but tastes horrible and so is usually discarded) and a seed sack in the center; the seeds of some papayas are edible, and are considered by some people to be a form of health food, but are normally thrown away by most consumers due to their bitter taste.
Papayas are an excellent (and delicious) source of vitamins A, C, B1, and E. They contain dietary fiber, antioxidants (carotenes and flavonoids), potassium and magnesium. They are also sometimes used in local folk medicines to treat burns, acne, toothache, and constipation. In India, Pakistan, and some parts of Southeast Asia, eating large amounts of papaya before it is ripe is believed to be a natural contraceptive – and some recent scientific research has validated this claim.
So let’s take a look as some of the different types of papaya that are available today.
Mexican papayas are, obviously, native to Mexico and are still most often cultivated there, as well as parts of South America, the lower part of the United States, and in other parts of the world. These are quite probably the same papayas that the Spanish explorers first introduced to the world in the 16th century.
Larger than many other varieties of papaya, some strains can grow up to 15 pounds or more and measure over 20 inches in length, although the average size of the fruit when ripe is between 2 and 4 pounds and between 8 and 10 inches long. Mexican papayas are one of the fastest growing of all types of tropical fruits. There are, in fact, two main types of closely genetically related Mexican papayas: red and yellow. Both types will generally have a green to yellowish-green skin.
The Mexican Red (also sometimes called the Maradol or Caribbean red papaya) has an orange to rose-red flesh while, not surprisingly, the Mexican Yellow has a rich yellow flesh. Both have fairly large seed sacks in the center containing inedible seeds. While both variants tend to be among the largest of all commonly grown papayas, the Mexican Yellow tends to be slightly smaller and is sweeter than the red type, although not as sweet as some other varieties – particularly those grown in Hawaii.
Today, Mexico ships about 180,000 tons of both red and yellow papaya to the United States each year, which translates to about 80% of the papayas Americans will find in their local supermarkets. Because of how fast the fruit grows and its overall durability, Mexican papayas are normally available in the US year round.
Actually a family of different papaya plants, various types of Solo papayas are cultivated in the US State of Hawaii and many of the Caribbean Islands. Members of the Solo family account for the majority of Hawaiian papaya production. Generally speaking, members of the Solo family will be sweeter than their Mexican cousins.
First brought to Hawaii from Barbados in the early part of the 1910s, the Solo papaya will normally be round or slightly pear-shaped and have a smooth or slightly furrowed greenish skin. The flesh of the Solo is usually firm, will have an orange to red color, and is quite sweet. It is often eaten alone, or as part of fruit salads or platters. When ripe, the Solo will usually weigh between 1.5 and 2 pounds.
The Solo papaya plant has proven quite adaptable and hardy when it comes to cross fertilization and genetic enhancements, and is considered to be the ‘father’ of the Solo papaya family.
Developed in Hawaii in the early 1960s, the Sunrise Solo is a very popular variety of papaya that is exported from the islands to many parts of the world, due in part to its thicker and harder than usual outer skin, which makes it very durable during transport. This papaya is generally pear-shaped.
Also sometimes called the Strawberry papaya, the skin is usually a yellowish orange color that will become spotted as the fruit ripens. Normally weighing between a pound and a pound and a half when fully ripe, the flesh is deep orange to red in color, and has a very high natural sugar content, making it extremely sweet. The seed sack in the center of the fruit is very shallow, allowing for easy seed removal.
Along with being eaten on its own and used in various fruit cocktails or platters, this papaya is often juiced and added to other juices for drinking, and is sometimes used as a marinade for meat.
Considered the ‘little sister’ of the Sunrise, the Sunset Solo papaya was developed at the University of Hawaii at the same time as the Sunrise. Developed as a dwarf breed of papaya plant, due to its small size the Sunset Solo is a very popular type of papaya plant with home gardeners and greenhouse growers in the United States and Canada.
The Sunset Solo papaya will usually be pear-shaped, have a yellowish-green / orange skin, is normally between 10 and 15 percent smaller than the Sunrise, and ripens earlier in the season. The flesh is salmon-pink to light red in color and quite firm; it is slightly less sweet than the Sunrise, but sweeter than the Mexican varieties. These papayas have a longer than average shelf life, and are usually available in the United States year round.
Waimanalo (X-77) Solo
Another cultivar developed at the University of Hawaii, the Waimanalo Solo (also called the X-77, presumably after its research case number) is a mid-size papaya. A bit larger than the Sunrise Solo, it will normally weigh between 1.5 to 2.5 pounds when ripe.
The Waimanalo Solo papaya has a dark green, smooth skin and a thick, firm orange flesh that is fairly sweet and slightly acidic. Not a particularly sturdy papaya, the Waimanalo Solo is normally only found in local Hawaiian markets and on the West Coast of the United States, and is sometimes used in canned fruit medleys and cocktails.
Red Lady Dwarf Papaya
The Red Lady Dwarf is a hybrid variant of the Mexican Red papaya. This plant is particularly popular with home growers in the Southern United States due to its small size (usually between three and four feet tall) as well as its natural resistance Papaya Ringspot Virus.
Though a dwarf plant, the Red Lady produces fruit that usually averages between 3 and 5 pounds when fully ripe. The smooth skin is a greenish-yellow in color, and the flesh tends to be orange to light red. The fruit is sweet and quite juicy.
Hortus Gold Papaya
The Hortus Gold papaya is a native of South Africa, where it was first developed in the early 1950s. Now grown in many parts of Africa and Southeast Asia, the Hortus Gold has a bright yellow-gold (hence the name), smooth skin and an oval shape.
Generally weighing two or three pounds, the flesh (like the skin) is a bright golden yellow. The flesh is relatively firm and very sweet and juicy. It is usually eaten raw by itself or as part of a fruit salad, and is also sometimes cooked and used as part of savory dishes.
Also sometimes called the Formosa papaya, the Tainung was developed in Taiwan in the mid-1980s, and today is commercially cultivated throughout Asia, the Caribbean, and Central America. A relatively hardy plant, the Tainung is actually a descendant of the Sunrise papaya.
Sold throughout the United States, the Tainung is one of the largest papayas you are likely to find at your local market, usually running between 3 and 4 pounds when ripe. An elongated papaya, the Tainung looks a bit like an American football with a greenish-yellow skin. The flesh is usually pink or light red, and it has a sweet flavor not unlike some types of melons. The edible seeds have a peppery flavor, and are sometimes used as a seasoning in some Asian recipes.
Oak Leaved Papaya
Moving from one of the largest to one of the smallest types of papayas, the Oak Leaved papaya is a native of the Andes Mountains region of Western South America. Not widely commercially cultivated, the Oak Leaved papaya tree produces a very small (usually about 3 to 4 inches long) oval-shape greenish-yellow fruit that is normally eaten raw and whole, as the skin and seeds are also edible. The flesh is orange and quite pulpy, and fairly sweet.
Perhaps the newest type of papaya as of this writing (always remembering that new cultivars of papaya are being developed all the time) the Samba papaya was developed in 2016 and first introduced to the world marketplace in 2018. Currently regarded as a specialty fruit, they are not widely available in the United States at this point – but give them time.
The Samba is an extremely nutrient-rich papaya that has an oval shape and yellowish-green slightly spotted skin. The flesh is a dark orange with a mild flavor that is not overly sweet. The Samba is most often eaten raw as part of a salad or medley, and also stands up to cooking quite well.
Royal Star Papaya
Another new citizen of the papaya community, the Royal Star papaya was developed in Texas and first appeared in the US and Canadian markets in 2011. A hybrid of the Mexican Red, the Royal Star is a relatively small papaya weighing between one and two pounds when ripe.
This oval papaya has a green and yellow mottled skin which will eventually ripen to a deep orange. The firm, juicy flesh is usually bright orange and has a tropically sweet flavor. The star-shaped seed sack contains round, black, edible seeds. With an excellent extended shelf life, the Royal Star papaya will keep for about twice as long as most other types of papayas.
Lisa has a Bachelor’s of Science in Communication Arts. She is an experienced blogger who enjoys researching interesting facts, ideas, products, and other compelling concepts. In addition to writing, she likes photography and Photoshop.