Papayas (Carica papaya) differ from most other cultivated fruits because very few true varieties exist. Cultivated varieties are instead classified into types based on the qualities of their fruit and their region of origin. Two main types of papayas exist: Hawaiian and Mexican. Although they share many similarities, they also exhibit some notable differences.
Papayas grow best within U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 9b to 12, although dwarf varieties such as ‘TR Hovey’ (Carica papaya ‘TR Hovey,’ USDA zones 9 to 11) will grow indoors in colder areas.
Pear-shaped, yellow-skinned Hawaiian papayas are the type most commonly seen in grocery stores. Their sweet, flavorful flesh is generally orange or salmon-colored when ripe with a cluster of shiny black seeds radiating out from the center. The fruit typically weighs around 1 pound and has a pear-like shape, but it varies between cultivars.
Perhaps the most common Hawaiian papaya cultivar is ‘Solo’ (Carica papaya ‘Solo,’ USDA zones 9b to 11), which produces fruit with firm, exceptionally sweet flesh with a reddish-orange coloration. The fruit typically weighs 1 to 2 pounds. A related strain of ‘Solo’ papaya is ‘Sunrise Solo’ (Carica papaya ‘Sunrise Solo,’ USDA zones 9b to 11). The fruit is similar in quality but slightly smaller, and its seeds are easier to remove.
A dwarf variety of Hawaiian-type papaya is ‘Red Lady’ (Carica papaya ‘Red Lady,’ USDA zones 10 and 11). It reaches a mature height of just 4 feet and will flower in its second year. The sweet, reddish-orange fruit can reach 3 to 5 pounds, although 2-pound fruit is more common when the plant is grown in a pot.
Papayas can be female, male or bisexual, although most cultivated varieties are female or bisexual by design to ensure fruiting.
Mexican papayas stand out from Hawaiian types with the size of their fruit. Each fruit can reach a weight of 10 pounds and can exceed 15 inches long. Mexican papayas also have a less intense flavor and the flesh is usually yellow, light orange or pale pink in color. Unlike Hawaiian papayas, Mexican types are rarely seen in shops or garden centers.
The most common cultivars of Mexican papaya are ‘Maradol’ (Carica papaya ‘Maradol,’ USDA zones 9b to 11), ‘Mexican Yellow’ (Carica papaya ‘Mexican Yellow,’ USDA zones 9b to 11) and ‘Mexican Red’ (Carica papaya ‘Mexican Red,’ USDA zones 9b to 11).
‘Maradol’ papayas are noted for their large, elongated fruit, which can weigh 2 to 8 pounds. Its yellowish-green skin conceals sweet, salmon-pink flesh studded with shiny black seeds. The flavor is musky and benefits from the addition of lime juice.
‘Mexican Yellow’ and ‘Mexican Red’ papayas differ in flavor and color, with the former being very sweet with yellowish-orange flesh and the latter mild tasting and rosy pink. Both produce medium to large-sized fruit, although ‘Mexican Yellow’ papayas sometimes produce very large fruit.
Avoid eating unripe papaya if you are pregnant or are trying to conceive because it contains a substance that may cause uterine contractions.