Growing up in an African home, I noticed that whenever one had digestive distress, pawpaw fruit was one of the top recommended remedies. For instance if you were constipated, it acted like a soothing laxative.
Pawpaw fruit has a sweet and custard-like flavour and can be eaten, blended as juice or mixed in a salad. But did you know that there are three sex types of pawpaw? There is the female, male and hermaphrodites. Yes. That one. The female and hermaphrodites (flower that has both male and female reproductive organs) are responsible for the fruits.
Thorn in the flesh
Identifying the gender of pawpaw has been a challenging task for farmers, making many of them resort to importing seeds from countries that have machines that can identify male and female seeds. Paul Mwanza a farmer in Makueni county says he spends around Sh300,000 to buy the seeds.
"The problem is we do not have machines that can identify the gender, so it is better to just import to avoid losses that I might incur if majority of seeds I have turn out to be male," he says.
So how do you tell male and female?
The flowers of the male pawpaw tree contain both the male organ- the stamen - and a pistil- the female organ. However, the pistil is not functional hence the tree cannot produce fruits.
However, in rare cases when it's too hot the pistil becomes functional and the male tree temporarily becomes a hermaphrodite and it can be pollinated and produce fruits.
Female pawpaw trees
The flowers of the female tree grow in small clusters; they only have the female organ the pistil hence can only produce fruits if pollinated. If not pollinated they may produce seedless fruits.
Hermaphrodite pawpaw trees
The hermaphroditic flowers contain both a stamen and pistil that are fully functional, hence they do not require pollination to produce fruits.
For those interested in pawpaw production, the farmer has some insights.
Mwanza says on an acre farm a farmer needs, 1,000 seeds, two to three tonnes of manure, insecticides and plenty of water. There are clusters, Cluster One can produce around 80 fruits, Cluster Two between 90-120.
"F1 needs more care but it pays off, the more manure you use the healthier they become," he says.
Mountain pawpaw can produce around 120 fruits, while Malkia F1 around 70-80 he says.
Mwanza says on an acre, a farmer will spend between Sh15,000 to Sh20,000 on insecticides. However, the challenge can be getting an effective insecticide since most insects are not local they were imported with seeds.
"Most of the insects are inbuilt. The way out is to communicate with company you bought the seeds from in case you notice anything strange," he says.
Some of the common paw paw varieties are Malkia F1, the mountain pawpaw, The Red Royal F1, Hermaphroditic Solo pawpaw, Sinta F1 - Hybrid, Vega F1 - Hybrid, the wide yielding Sunrise and Golden Caliman. Pawpaws have many health benefits that are good for everybody.
However, pregnant women should avoid semi ripe ones as they contain latex (enzymes called papain or the white milky fluid that comes out of the papaya) that can harm the baby.