SCIENTIFIC NAME: Carica papaya
FAMILY: Caricaceae

The papaya is indigenous to tropical America. The exact origin in America is uncertain, but it is closely related to the 'monkey's papay', Carica peltata Hook. and Arn. of Mexico and Costa Rica, which is probably the female of C. bourgeoei Solms-Laub. It is possible that it appeared first in those parts of Central America where that species is found, but on the other hand it may have resulted from several hybridizations, some perhaps having occurred in Mexico.

Carica papaya was first brought to the notice of Europeans by Oviedo, who was Director of Mines in Hispaniola from 1513 to 1525. He wrote that Alphonse de Valverde had brought its seeds from the coasts beyond Panama to Darie, from where it was carried to San Domingo and to other islands in the West Indies. It seems that on the discovery of America, it had not reached its possible limits of distribution in the New World, although, at that time, it had become fairly well-distributed on the mainland of tropical America. It was only much later, in 1626, that seeds of papaya were introduced to Europe from India.

The Spaniards carried the plant from the West Indies to Manila along with its Hispaniola name, papaya, which is still used in the Philippine Islands. From there it was brought by either the Portuguese or Spaniards to Eastern Malaya. It must have reached Malacca before 1583 and Goa after 1589, according to the Dutch traveller Linschoten. The celebrated Dutch botanist, Rheed, made an illustration of the papaya on the Malabar coast not long after 1667 when he became Governor of Ceylon. From there its seed was spread amongst the numerous islands, and according to Sturtevant (1919) it was known throughout the islands of the Pacific by 1800.

In a letter dated 13 May 1652, shortly after his arrival in the Cape, Jan van Riebeeck ordered papaya seed from India for his adaptability studies. In the middle of the eighteenth century, Lauriero saw the papaya in Zanzibar, and it is believed to have been brought to East Africa by the Portuguese in the sixteenth or seventeenth century. The possibility of its introduction into East Africa from Malaya by way of Madagascar should also not be overlooked. Capt. G J Elphick was the first papaya grower in the Lowveldt early in the twentieth century, and also the first to send five boxes to the market in Johannesburg.

The papaya is now widespread in most tropical areas of the world up to 32°N and S of the equator. Besides Central America, papaya is important as a commercial plant in Hawaii, South Africa,. Australia, India, Ceylon, the Philippines and South-East Asia. In South Africa, the papaya is mainly cultivated in the Eastern and North-Eastern Transvaal, Lowveldt, Natal, and to a lesser extent in the Eastern Cape.

The names papaw, pawpaw, paw-paw, melon pawpaw, papaya and papita are applied to Carica papaya L., the most commonly used being papaya and papaw. Other inflections in use are papaia, papeya, papia and papino. The word 'papaw' is favoured by the Shorter English Oxford Dictionary, and was first used in 1598 after being adopted from papaya or papay which was thought to be a derivation of the Caribbean word 'ababai'.

The word 'papaw' or 'pawpaw' is also applied to a small North American tree, Asimina triloba of the Annonaceae, which has a small edible fruit, with a yellow flesh, creamy and rather watery, and numerous brownish seeds, arranged lengthwise in a double row. Confusion may easily result from the use of the name 'papaw' when referring to two such very different fruits, unless the context is taken fully into account.

The Portuguese name currently used in Brazil, is 'mamao'; in French the fruit is called 'papaye'; in German and Afrikaans 'papaja' and in Italian 'papaia'.

Several other names are used in tropical America, namely fruita de bomba in Cuba, lechosa in Puerto Rico, melon zapote in parts of Mexico, and tree melon in English-speaking countries.

W Conradie
Quandong Vol 19, No.1. First Quarter 1993

DATE: March 1993

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