Papaya, Carica papaya, and of the genus Carica, is native to tropical Americas, from Southern Mexico, to Central and Northern South America. It was cultivated in Mexico before Mesoamerican times. It adapts well in tropical climates and is now grown worldwide in the tropics. At the University of Granada, the papaya was the first fruit ever to have its genome deciphered.
The tree-like plant can grow to 35 feet and has no branches unless pruned. The leaves are at the top of the tree and the trunk is scarred from where leaves and flowers were originally, and where the fruit grows out of the single trunk. The flowers form on the axils of the leaves, the leaves fall off and the fruit grows. Fruits vary in size depending on the variety, and can range in size from a half pound to ten pounds, possibly more. They are sometimes called big melon or melon fruit and even paw-paw, though they are not related to the paw-paw.
Papaya skins are very thin and are green-yellow to blush-yellow when ripe. Fruits are eaten both green and ripe, raw and cooked. The fruit is soft, like an avocado, flavorful (especially the smaller varieties), and has canteloupe-colored or yellow flesh. In the center of the fruit are numerous small, black, edible seeds that have a sharp, spicy taste. The seeds are sometimes ground up and used as pepper.
Green papayas are prepared in curries, stews and salads. Papayas have numerous ethno-medicinal uses. The green fruit and the tree’s latex are both high in papain, an enzyme that aids in digestion and is also used to tenderize meats. It is also made into a gel-like ointment to heal cuts, burns, insect bites and rashes. When Harrison Ford ruptured a disc during the filming of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, he was treated with papain injections. Some people have an allergic reaction to papaya or to the latex from the tree.