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Male papaya flowers are disgusting

August 30, 2012

Most plants are monoecious, i.e. they make hermaphroditic flowers carrying both female (pistil) and male parts (stamens). In papaya the flowers may have different genders (dioecious).

A male papaya tree is not good for the farmer who wants delicious fruit from female flowers. The Seehamongkol family considers a male to be ‘another variety’ and they simply cut it down. I read that some people eat the male flowers, and so I asked Nived to cook them. She said nobody eats them, and she said she had never seen them for sale anywhere in Thailand. I insisted, and although Nived boiled the flowers before stir-frying, they were terribly bitter! Although the Seehamongkol family enjoys equally bitter gall bladder, neem leaves and midnight horror fruits, these flowers were disgusting even to them.

If any of our readers know how to cook male papaya flowers, or which cultivar to select, please share with us! Update on October 27th: Recently Aini Zakaria from Malaysia, a soil scientist and a former student at Lund University, explained that in Malaysia they cook the male flowers of papaya together with leaves of Malabar blackmouth (Melastoma malabathricum) 1:1, and then they discard the water and the black mouth’s leaves. The purpose is to make the flowers less bitter. This morning we tried her recipe (boiling for 30 minutes) and it works! Ketsanee and I are most grateful.

Male flowers have only stamens and can not make fruit. Even from a distance you can tell they are male, because they form in clusters on long flexible stalks. The rule is not absolute, sometimes you get female flowers intermixed.

According to one visitor to Dokmai Garden one can change a papaya male to become a female by damaging the tree, such as carving a cross. Theoretically the stress induces a hormonal change aimed at making fruits and seeds, ultimately the papaya tries to escape this poor place where you apparently get stabbed. If this works or not is something I wish to see with my own eyes. However, if nothing happens you may argue the stress (the carving) was not severe enough, and if something do happen you may argue it might have happened of other reasons. To scientifically test this technique, you need at least 50 males of each treatment. However, a small scale test is a pilot study to give you a hunch.

Perfect fruits from female flowers formed in the leaf axils near the stem. These fruits indeed look ‘feminine’, like breasts full of milk.

Why would a papaya tree make male flowers in the first place? Male pollen fertilizing female flowers (sex) cause a recombination of genes. The greater the genetic diversity among the seeds, the greater the chances some offspring will survive an ever-changing world. One alternative is cloning, creating identical offspring, which is risky if the environment changes. Another alternative is self recombination, but that constitutes less variety than in sexual reproduction.

A female papaya do not need pollen, she can make fruits anyhow. Interestingly, papaya can also make hermaphroditic flowers. One type has a round ovary and makes round fruits, one has an elongated ovary and makes peculiar long fruits. Some home gardeners believe that these odd-looking fruits are due to some disease, but it is just normal variation.

An elongated fruit from a hermaphroditic flower.

Sections of three flower types of three different papaya plants originating from the same batch of seeds. To the left a female flower with its massive ovary, branched stigma and absence of yellow male pollen-carrying anthers. In the middle a hermaphrodite with female-like long petals but presence of yellow male anthers and a tiny ovary with an unbranched stigma. To the right a male flower with its typical long tube, small petals, yellow anthers and a reduced female organ.

In spite of ‘papaya salad’ being a national Thai dish, papaya is not even native to Asia. It originates in Central America. There are 23 species of Papaya but only one is commonly grown: Carica papaya (Caricaceae). The ancestors of our domesticated papaya are not known. A wonderful feature of papaya is that it fruits all year round. I like to serve it cold, then it is like ice cream. Be aware that some varieties are much better than others.

If the fruit is soft, then it is sweet and ripe, regardless whether it is green or not. Picture from the book ‘Fruits and vegetables in Southeast Asian markets’.

Warning! The papaya ringspot virus is a terrible disease and you must cut any tree with symptoms immediately! This virus is particularly common in Chiang Mai. It is not dangerous to humans but will distort leaves and fruits. The virus is spread via sucking insect such as aphids. Do not buy little seedlings at the Khamtieng flower market (like we did). Instead, take a look at your neighbour’s papaya tree. If it looks fine, buy a ripe fruit and taste it. If it is good, then plant the seeds.

When cutting down a papaya you realize the stem is soft (more herb-like than woody) and even hollow at the base. The stem is so soft you can not build anything from it, and it deteriorates quickly after logging. Feed it to the pigs, and use the leaves for wrapping and tenderizing meat; the enzyme papain degrades protein.

Papaya is easy to grow in Chiang Mai, but water logging will kill it. You will get your first fruits quickly after planting a seedling, usually within months.

Text: Eric Danell

Photo: All pictures were taken at Dokmai Garden in Chiang Mai. Jussi Suominen took the picture of the viral leaves, the other photos except the cut fruit were taken by Eric Danell on August 29th, 2012.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. Bruce Bebe permalink
    August 30, 2012 7:01 AM

    Yes Eric, In Hawaii where lived for 20 years and was active on an organics farm there, including papayas, we would plant out the seeds, await a strong hermaphroditic female and remove the rest. We would wait until the flowers appeared and open them to look for the yellow inside. If it was green, it was a female and would be be culled out.
    We would only keep the flowered plants showing yellow as they were hermaphroditic. That was our policy in Hawaii.

    Regards, Bruce Bebe, Phayao

  2. August 30, 2012 9:11 AM

    Very well said. Like, like, like. Very Southeast Asian. Very Thailand. Very Philippines. By the way, I got curious with Midnight Horror fruits. I have never seen one. Wish I could someday.

    • August 30, 2012 9:38 AM

      The fruits are quite large and flat, and my Thai family and the local villagers love them, especially grilled. We keep two specimens within Dokmai Garden, but they grow in the wild all around us.

  3. August 31, 2012 4:03 AM

    I lived in Puna, Hawaii, for more than 30 years. Puna is the center of the Hawaii papaya industry. Ringspot nearly devastated it; then the University of Hawaii genetically engineered a resistant variety. Of course, like many commercial fruit varieties, it doesn’t taste very good. I won’t buy them but can get good, “backyard,” varieties in Honolulu’s Chinatown. The way papayas are grown commercially in Hawaii is disgusting. Growers bulldoze forested areas, and grow the fruit for several years until their unsustainable methods inevitably lead to uneconomic yields, and then they abandon the fields and go bulldoze more forest somewhere. The abandoned fields become toxic cornucopias of trashy invasive species that spread everywhere. The land in most of Puna is mostly so rocky that there is almost no soil at all, and growers have to saturate the orchards with chemical fertilizers; the area is also infested with fruit flies, so fruits are heavily sprayed with pesticides. It’s a really obnoxious form of agriculture.

    Your discussion of the monoecious/dioecious thing reminded me of the extremes the avocado tree goes to to ensure a good mix-up of the genes. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but as I understand it, although male and female flowers are born on the same trees, they flower weeks apart so that it is almost impossible for a tree to self-pollinate. Speaking of avocados, I don’t recall seeing them in Thailand, although they must be there. What do you know about that. Actually I’ve been wondering whether breadfruit is widely grown in Thailand, too.

    Aloha,
    Ken

    • August 31, 2012 9:02 AM

      Remarkably avocado has not been extensively grown until recently. The upscale supermarkets in Thailand would sell imported (Australian) avocado fruits for 50 Baht each, more expensive than in Sweden, but if you are lucky you might find a hilltriber in Mae Sai selling a 3 kg bag of delicious avocado for the same price!

      Thais do not yet consume much avocado, but when I made a guacamole for my Thai family they first tried it with suspicion and then they moved the chairs next to the bowl to finish it. I predict in about ten years there will be a lot more domestic avocado available.

      My experience from Dokmai Garden is that an avocado seedling can flower after three years. Although said to be drought tolerant, avocado may have problems with the Chiang Mai valley, so access to irrigation is good. Also, do not plant it where water may accumulate during a heavy rain. I lost one tree due to water logging.

      Breadfruit is just a curiosity in the north and northeast of Thailand, planted for its ornamental value rather than consumption. You will see much more the further south you go.

      We have experimented with breadfruit cooking at Dokmai Garden.

      Cheers, Eric

  4. August 31, 2012 9:46 PM

    Hi Eric,
    I used to work 8 years in Malaysia (a long time ago)
    and I was told that we would get the same result if we hit a big nail in the tree….
    Have a great weekend,
    Cory
    http://www.asianhealingartscenter.com

  5. October 27, 2012 10:56 AM

    Another like for the update. Thanks for the info. Keep on sharing your know-hows.

  6. Brad permalink
    July 14, 2013 11:02 PM

    i had a male papaya, after it almost died from water-logging in A hurricane, it came back healthy as a herm. seems any kind of stress will do it.

  7. Niki hutchings permalink
    October 18, 2013 11:01 PM

    OMG… here I am looking so hard where to find the papaya flower that you said disgusting. We eat that a lot in Indonesia. You just have to know how to cook it if you don’t like the bitterness just like when you cook the bitter melon or the papaya leaves. The bitter veggies will make your sweat smell bitter. Not to human but to the mosquitos, which will keep them away from you. Growing up where the malaria is very common illness, we had to eat them at least once a week. I used to hate it when I was a little kid but now, I love them more than any other vegetables. Please, I would appreciate if I could get a handful of them just to make a small dish for me. I am willing to pay for it. thanks!!!!!

    • October 22, 2013 6:09 PM

      Thanks Niki for your interesting remarks.

      Indeed many flavours are acquired and the more open-minded we are the richer the palate! It was also interesting to read about the malaria remark. It seems folk medicine would use any bitter foods against malaria since active anti-malaria extracts from the quinine tree and the Artemisia annua shrub are bitter. Bitterness does not necessarily mean activity against malaria. It is a way of the plant to protect itself and indeed most mammals seem not fond of bitter plants.

      We should be happy to share male papaya flowers if it had not been for the notorious papaya mosaic virus infecting the gardens of the Chiang Mai valley. The situation is disastrous in many districts and we have cut down all of our trees, aiming at obtaining new virus free seeds. Do not buy seedlings from the Khamtieng flower market. To our experience they are infected too.

      Eric

  8. April 3, 2014 2:05 AM

    I wonder if I could use the photo of the male flowering plant in an article I am writing on how to take steps to grow non-GMO papaya? It may just be reproduced on my blog. I see credit would go to Eric Danell. Let me know if this is ok!

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