The story goes that when Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas, he was offered pawpaw to eat to relieve the discomfort of having overindulged at the feasting that had been provided by the native inhabitants. He described it as “the fruit of the angels”.
An exotic tropical melon-like fruit, with a sweet juicy flesh the colour of a sunset, the pawpaw is native to Mexico and Central America. Early explorers introduced it to the West Indies and from there it was carried initially to Asia and Africa. Eventually the pawpaw, or ‘papaya’ as it is known in many places, found its way to the Pacific and many places with a mild to warm climate.
About a century ago, the fruit was being grown commercially in Queensland, with large amounts being exported to other states. It was probably around this time that the palm- like tree became a standard feature in Norfolk gardens, providing a tasty accompaniment and filler for both sweet and savoury dishes. The fruit’s versatility, and long growing season would have appealed to Norfolk’s cooks. It could be served as a vegetable when green, extended a family sized fruit salad, and was especially tasty with a generous serving of sugar, lemon juice and cream.
Pawpaw is easy to grow. Like the banana, it is classified as a herb. The plant is started from one of the mass of black seeds that pack the centre of the fruit. Planted in the right spot and at the right time, your pawpaw will be producing its first plump golden oval shape fruits in a year, and continue to produce its bounty for about five years. Many trees will continue to grow, reaching a height of three storeys! However, the decreasing number of spindly fruit will only be within the reach of the grateful birds who visit your garden, or the wandering hens who will discover the fallen ripe fruit before you do. A good place to plant your pawpaw is next to a path. The concrete keeps the roots warm, and the plant enjoys the lime that leaches out. However, your tree will settle happily into any spot that is warm and protected.
The idea is to keep planting new trees, but this can be challenging, because pawpaws have gender issues, and identify as female, male or hermaphrodite. The male is, of course needed for pollination, but you will need more females and hermaphrodites to supply fruit. There are various theories as to how to identify male and female seed. Some believe that male seeds float, while female seeds sink in water. Others think that the delicate tiny seedlings produce a strong taproot in the males and more spread out roots in the females. Some growers believe they can identify the sexes from the lobes in the initial sets of leaves. Disappointingly, none of these theories has been scientifically proven. DNA testing is possible but impractical for the average gardener. One just needs to plant a number of trees, and wait until the flowers appear before culling the excess males. The creamy female flowers cling to the trunk, while the male ones hang from a stem. Just to add to the gender identity confusion, a male pawpaw can turn into a female in extreme weather, and produce a skinny drooping fruit. And it is even possible for the occasional tree to produce quite separate male and female flowers. Surprisingly, the main pollinators are likely to be moths rather than bees.
The versatility of the pawpaw goes well beyond its sexual identity. It is an amazing plant in that every part – fruit, skin, seeds, flowers, leaves, roots and bark – can be useful either in their natural form, or have medical, pharmaceutical, commercial and industrial applications.
The fruit itself is rich in vitamins, minerals, dietary fibre and anti-oxidants. It is low GI, low calorie and low in sodium. Pawpaw is well known to aid in digestion, something Columbus evidently recognised! One of the key ingredients is an enzyme called ‘papain’, which breaks down proteins. Papain can also be used in producing chewing gum, toothpaste, medicines and meat tenderisers. Scientists are now discovering the papain enzyme has potential as an anti-inflammatory and is able to boost the immune system. It has been used for chill-proofing beer, and also in the textile and cosmetic industries. By-products are used to regulate menstruation, ease the side effects of cancer treatments, act as an anti-bacterial agent, and even to protect from colon cancer.
The seeds, when dried, make an interesting pepper substitute. Trials have even shown that pawpaw seeds could play an important role in the production of a male contraceptive. The flowers or leaves can be made into a tea, the leaves can be cooked like spinach and the bark has traditionally been used to ease toothache!
Most of us grew up with a tube of Pawpaw Ointment in our family medicine cabinet. It was a soothing and healing balm for a wide range of skin ailments, including acne, eczema, burns and minor wounds.
Norfolkers had become accustomed to picking a pawpaw to use the flesh to ease a case of sunburn, or to marinate their steak to make it tender, not always realising that the best results may come from the unripe fruit! Nowadays, we are discovering more possibilities for using the green fruits in Asian dishes and salads. Meanwhile, the ripe flesh is being used in sorbets, ice creams and smoothies, and is especially tasty when combined with coconut cream. Also, on Norfolk we are now seeing more of the pink fleshed varieties which people say are even sweeter and more appealing.
The pawpaw is truly a miracle of nature, which we have long taken for granted. The people of Mexico and Central America still refer to the pawpaw as ‘the plant of good health.’ It is often called ‘The Medicine Tree’ and many of us are Norfolk Island are lucky enough to have it growing in our own backyards.
Image Credit: Robin Nisbet
Article content disclaimer: Article first published in Discover Norfolk, Volume 02 Issue 01, 2018. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.