Meet Babaco

By David and Tina Silber

Imagine yourself in the cool and misty mountain valleys of Ecuador. It was there--no one knows exactly when--that a horticultural miracle occurred. A new type of papaya appeared, one perfectly suited to home-garden growing: The six-foot-high plant is completely adaptable to container growing, and it fruits prolifically. Grow it outdoors anywhere it doesn't freeze, and in pots everywhere else.

The large fruits of this natural hybrid are fragrant and torpedo-shaped, with five flattened facets. Sliced crosswise, they have a pentagonal outline. Known to the natives as bab-co, they are delicious to eat.

The flavor is kind of like pineapple and banana, but not as sweet, and quite different from that of Hawaiian papayas. The fruits contain three times as much papain, a digestive enzyme, as common papayas, as well as a full complement of vitamins and minerals. In short, babaco earns its keep.

One of several papayas indigenous to Ecuador, babaco has long been cultivated throughout the inter-Andean region of Ecuador from the Loja Province northward to El Carchi, usually between 5,900 feet and 9,500 feet in elevation. It was classified as Carica pentagona by the European plant explorer O. Heilborn in 1921. Babacos are sterile, so are propagated only by cuttings.

As with all papayas, babaco is not a tree but a large evergreen plant that resembles a small palm. It grows quickly to its mature height of about six feet and width of about four feet. The one- to two-foot-wide leaves are smooth and hairless, with broad lobes. Healthy plants make as many as 30 fruits a season, each one eight to 12 inches long and four inches in diameter, and weighing one to two pounds. The plants can live and fruit for up to 20 years--but most don't. A typical life span is four to eight years.

The seedless fruit starts out with a green skin. Upon ripening, it turns golden yellow and develops a pronounced fruity aroma, without the muskiness of the common papaya. Squishy-soft fruits are the mavorful. The juicy flesh is about two inches thick, creamy white, fragrant and acid. Texture is similar to that of a casaba melon. Fruits harvested half-yellow will ripen indoors at room temperature.

The thin skin is completely edible. Chop up half a fruit and drop it into a blender with orange juice and a banana. Or, sprinkle the fruit with sugar and set it in the refrigerator for a few hours to enhance the flavor. Sweetened bab-co is tasty combined with dairy products such as yogurt.

How to Grow Babaco

The ideal babaco climate approximates Ecuador's highlands: cool summers and frost-free winters, with an average winter temperature of 43°F and a minimum of about 35°F. In southern California, babaco grows best in full sun, near the oceans. In these areas, daytime temperatures rarely exceed 80°F. Given partial shade, however, it thrives in hotter, inland climates. I get excellent results here in Granada Hills (northwestern San Fernando Valley) by shading plants with 50 percent shade cloth supported by a frame. A site that provides dappled shade would be a near equivalent.

Start with plants from mail-order nurseries. Depending upon size, cost is $15 to $40 each. Choose a site that offers sun or light shade, protection from strong winds and excellent soil drainage. An otherwise hardy and robust plant, bab-co is susceptible to root rot disease. If your soil is poorly drained or heavy clay, or has a caliche layer blocking drainage, build a four- by four-foot raised bed and fill it with a container soil mix.

Condition the native soil by spading in a couple of two-cubic-foot bags of good planting mix; or use your own compost. At planting time, apply a controlled-release fertilizer such as 14-14-14 (one teaspoon per gallon of soil). Underfertilized plants produce small fruits. To ensure an adequate supply of calcium, add two cups of gypsum in alkaline western soils, or two to four cups of ground limestone in acidic eastern soils. Mulch is important. Babaco roots will grow up into a thick layer of organic mulch for nutrients and air.

Place a five-foot support stake adjacent to the stem at planting time. This may seem unnecessary because young plants stand straight. Soon, however, the trunk will be straining under the load of developing fruit.

Water sparingly after planting. Roots are especially sensitive to excess soil moisture just after transplanting. Thereafter, the soil should be allowed to dry partially between watering. If you suspect you are underwatering, watch for premature yellowing of the older leaves and fruit drop.

Revitalize a tall, straggly plant by cutting it off about six to 12 inches above the ground in spring. It will promptly resprout. Leave one or two sprouts to develop into new fruiting trunks and remove the rest. Use the old trunk (except for the top several inches) for cuttings. Make each about 12 inches long, and use rooting hormone and bottom heat to get them started.

Where It's Too Cold in Winter, Too Hot in Summer

Babaco's small size makes it ideal for indoor and container culture. In cold areas, move container-grown plants to a sunny window in winter, then back outside in summer. (NG's horticulturist grew--and fruited--babaco in Vermont!) Likewise, where summers are hot and humid, move the container to a cooler, drier location from April to September. Because it is self-fruitful, babaco can set fruits indoors as well as outdoors.

A 15-gallon pot or whiskey barrel planter is just the right size for long-term growing. Choose a container mix that has a large portion of coarse material such as perlite or ground bark (1/4-inch size). Avoid peat moss; it's too water retentive. To avoid overheating the roots, never allow the sunlight to fall on the side of container-grown plants.

Given its compact size and precocious fruiting habit, babaco can find a home anywhere. Give it a try.

David Silber grows babaco papaya and other exotic fruits around their home in Granada Hills, California.

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