Like a palm tree in appearance, the papaya is a large, woody plant that grows as a single stem up to 12 feet tall, with many leaves at the top. Though papaya plants have a short lifespan and are fast-growing, they produce many large, sweet and delicious fruits each season, making them well worth cultivating.
The stem of the papaya plant is over 1 foot wide at the base, narrowing to 2 or 3inches at the top, where the large and deeply lobed leaves form. As the papaya grows, lower leaves die and fall off, leaving a scar on the stem. Papaya flowers have five fleshy and waxy petals that grow on short stalks on the stem. The plants can be male, female or bisexual. The pear-shaped fruit is large, with yellow-green skin and can weigh more than 10 lbs., depending on the variety. The flesh is yellow to orange or pink, juicy and slightly sweet, with a flavor reminiscent of cantaloupe.
Plant papayas in warm environments. Within the United States, papayas can rarely be grown outside southern Florida and southern California. Ensure that your plants receive direct sunlight. Papaya plants can be planted near houses and other structures to benefit from reflected heat. If planted in shade, the fruit rarely sweetens properly. Also, plant papaya in an area protected from windy conditions. The soil should be light and should drain well. Excess moisture in the soil can easily kill a papaya plant. Avoid planting papaya near beach areas, because the plant is not very salt tolerant.
Papaya plants are often propagated from seed. Seeds can be extracted from ripe papaya fruit, then cleaned and dried. A dusting of fungicide is a good idea, prior to planting. The seeds should be planted as soon as possible to maintain their viability. It is also a good idea to start seeds in several containers to improve the likelihood that male and female plants will sprout. Plant three or four seeds in each 1-gallon container in warm potting soil that has been sterilized. This will help prevent young papaya seedlings from dying due to fungal infections. Water the seeds thoroughly, and place the containers in a sunny area to germinate.
Germination usually takes two to three weeks. As the seedlings emerge, select the most vigorous one in each container, and cut the others off at the soil line. You can now feed the seedlings with a diluted, all-purpose fertilizer solution every two weeks. Once the papaya plants have grown to around 1 foot tall, plant them in a sunny location.
Papaya can be planted directly in the ground in well-drained soils. In areas that are wetter, mound planting offers a well-draining planting site. To construct a mound, pile soil 2 to 3 feet high and 5 to ten 10 feet in diameter. To plant the papaya, dig a hole three to four times larger and two to three times deeper than the container. Back-fill the hole with excavated soil so that the top of the soil from the container is at the top level of the surrounding soil. Fill in the remainder of the hole and tamp it, lightly. Stake the tree to support it, if necessary. Mulch around the tree and water thoroughly.
Regular watering, to keep the soil moist but not wet, will help your papaya plants to grow well. Do not over-water, as this can damage papaya plants. Watering should be increased as the heat of the summer rises and reduced as cooler temperatures prevail. A good all-purpose fertilizer can be fed every two weeks until the plants become well established. This usually takes around six to eight months. After that, the plants can be fed every other month. Papaya plants are short-lived and should be replanted around every four or five years for best production.