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Highland Papayas

The tropical papaya probably originated in the lowlands of Central America, but since the time of Columbus it has spread throughout the tropics and become well established. Languishing in the highlands of South America are several intriguing relatives that should be more widely cultivated. They, too, may have worldwide potential.

These “highland papayas”1 are particularly common in upland valleys of Ecuador and Colombia, but they can be found from Venezuela well into the southern cone countries. Like the common papaya, they are Carica species, but compared with their well-known tropical cousin, the highland papayas tend to be smaller, less succulent, and quite different in taste. The vast range of their diversity has not yet been collected or codified to any extent, and surprising discoveries quite likely await explorers, researchers, and entrepreneurs.

These mountain papayas incorporate a wide array of flavors and qualities. Although some specimens are tasteless and many have to be cooked with sugar to make them palatable, a few specimens are highly appealing as fresh fruits—having mild, fresh, melonlike textures and flavors. Extremely fragrant, they add an alluring scent to meals or special occasions. The types used for cooking are appealing in their own way. They are commonly added to soups and stews, to which they lend rich, fruity flavors.

Generally speaking, highland papaya plants resemble the tropical papaya plant in appearance and have similar cultivation requirements. All are “herbaceous trees.” All can have enormous yields: often within a year or two of planting, the palmlike trunks are stacked with 60 mature fruits; some can have as many as 200. The fruits look somewhat like papayas, and all contain the enzyme papain—at least when immature.

There are four important potentials for these crops:

  • Direct use. The types that produce tasty, high-quality fruits could

1 We have elected to use “highland papayas” as a collective name for these Andean species. They have an utterly confusing variety of local names, the same word often being applied to different fruits in different areas.

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