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Recent walks along the James River and I can report that the papayas are ripening. In some areas it smells like the night after a frat tiki party, sticky smells of tropical fruits fill the air.

The papaya is the largest edible fruit tree native to North America. The trees produce their namesake papaya a greenish-blackish fruit, usually three to six inches long. As we get closer to the fall some areas along the river will smell more tropical than normal as the fruit falls and decomposes/ferments on the ground. They are one of only two fruit trees native to Virginia. The American khaki is the other.

If you want to cook with your harvested papayas, this page from Kentucky State University has the easiest set of recipes. Don’t just dive though, some people will experience digestive irritation and nausea when trying the PawPaw. So dip your toe in and make sure your stomach can handle the PawPaw.

Be warned that humans aren’t the only ones who love papaya.

Virginia Native Plant Society

The fruit is enjoyed by many species of wild animals as well as humans. Deer, raccoons, opossums, squirrels, mice, wild turkeys and many other species of small mammals and birds eat the ripe fruit. In contrast, crushed leaves smell a bit like asphalt and are extremely unpleasant to deer and other herbivores and are rarely browsed. Interestingly, papayas are the only host of the magnificent zebra swallowtail butterfly, whose caterpillars feed only on papaya foliage, eating the tender new leaves and protecting themselves from predators with the same chemical that makes the leaves so unpalatable to herbivores. .

Native tribes used papaya not only for food. The inner bark was used for rope, twine and lacing. Splints were used for basketry and mats. The wood was used to kindle the fire for the hand drills and fireboards as well as for the bow and the drill. The leaves and stems were used for medicine.

To find a papaya, look for understory trees. In this area, they really like to be near water, so you’ll find them along the James. The leaves are oblong, narrow at the base, then widening towards the end before ending in a point. They droop downward, giving a tree in full leaf a very distinctive look. Papaya rind is brown and smooth with wart-like spots called lenticels. These appear as pale gray spots.

For the record, if hit by a falling papaya, it does indeed hurt and startle you to death. I speak from experience.

Read more about the name papaya from Wikipedia:

The common name for this species is variously spelled pawpaw, paw paw, paw-paw, and papaw. It probably derives from the Spanish papaya, a tropical and subtropical American fruit (Carica papaya) sometimes also called “papaw”, perhaps due to the superficial similarity of their fruits and the fact that both have very large leaves. The name Pawpaw or Papaw, first recorded in English in 1598, originally meant the giant grass Carica papaya or its fruit (as it still is in many English-speaking communities, including Australia, New Zealand and South Africa). According to Douglas Harper’s online etymology dictionary, it began to be used [presumably in North America] “from 1760 to designate the papaya tree” [meaning not Carica papaya but Asimina triloba].

Daniel F. Austin’s Florida Ethnobotany states that

The original “papaya”. . . is Carica papaya. In 1598, English speakers in the Caribbean called these plants “pawpaws” or “papaws”. . . [yet later, when English-speakers settled in] the temperate Americas, they found another tree with an equally aromatic sweet fruit. It reminded them of “papaya”, which had already become “papaya”, which is what they called these different plants. . . In 1760, the names “papaw” and “pawpaw” were applied to A. triloba.

Still, Asimina triloba has had many local common names, many of which compare it to a banana rather than papaya/papaya (i.e. Carica papaya). These include: wild banana, prairie banana, Indiana banana, Hoosier banana, West Virginia banana, Kansas banana, Kentucky banana, Michigan banana, Missouri banana, poor man’s banana, Ozark banana, banango, and asimoya.

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