Papaya is not a typical houseplant—which is precisely why you might consider growing one. Plus the seeds are so plentiful and easy to sprout. A single supermarket papaya will yield several hundred black seeds. Simply dry them out on a paper towel, and you'll have enough seeds to sprout papayas for the rest of your life.
Papaya is not a true tree, but rather a semi-woody herbaceous plant that grows with a thick central stem. The plants themselves are beautiful with a highly tropical appearance, with wide, deeply lobed leaves that spread out atop a thick stem resembling a trunk. The flowers sprout directly from this stem, along with the subsequent fruits.
Papaya is a very fast-growing plant, and in nature, it quickly assumes its adult size and bears fruit. Indoors, it generally won't be practical to grow plants to the 15-foot stature necessary for them to produce fruit. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't grow these fantastic plants—it just means you won't be eating fruit from them.
Plants grown from seeds will sprout in about two weeks and grow to flowering maturity in just 5 to 6 months. Unless pruned, many varieties will reach the ceiling before a year has passed.
|Botanical Name||Carica papaya|
|Plant Type||Semi-woody herbaceous perennial|
|Mature Size||15–30 feet tall, 3–10 feet wide (smaller when grown as houseplants)|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun|
|Soil Type||Loose, rich potting mix|
|Soil pH||5.5 to 7.0 (acidic to neutral)|
|Bloom Time||Rarely blooms indoors|
|Flower Color||Ivory white to pale yellow|
|Hardiness Zones||9–11 (USDA)|
|Native Area||Central America, but has naturalized in tropical regions everywhere|
|Toxicity||Latex sap may cause allergic reactions|
Papaya plants grow in similar conditions as bananas, requiring bright light, humidity, heat, and plenty of fertilizer and water. Also, like the banana, it's an extremely fast-growing semi-woody plant with large leaves that are the very essence of the tropics. As the plant grows, the lower leaves will yellow and fall off, leaving behind half-moon shaped leaf scars on the trunk-like stem.
It's unlikely an indoor papaya plant will flower, but if it does, you'll find out if your plant is male or female. Female plants have fragrant white flowers that emerge from the axis between the stem and leaf. Male plants have smaller yellow or white flowers that grow on pendant stalks.
These are very fast-growing plants, and most varieties will outgrow their space unless pruned regularly. There are few pests and diseases to worry about, though some of the standard indoor houseplant pests—aphids, mealybugs, and mites—may also affect papaya plants. Rot problems may occur if the potting soil is too dense and lacking in drainage.
Give this plant full sun, or conditions as bright as you can provide. Papayas are also a great sunny patio plant for summer climates.
When grown indoors, use a loose, well-drained, very rich potting mix. In the outdoor garden, the plant needs very well-drained soil.
These plants need a prodigious amount of water. As the plant grows, expect to water it daily.
Temperature and Humidity
Papaya plants need quite warm conditions, up to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. If you keep the plant during winter, try to keep the temperature as warm as possible, with high ambient humidity. This is not a plant that will tolerate a location near a drafty window.
In warm-weather climates, potted papayas are sometimes grown on a patio. But they will not react well to any temperatures below 65 degrees Fahrenheit.
Feed your papaya plant abundantly. Papayas are very rapidly growing plants that need nutrients to support that growth. Feed it every two weeks with a balanced fertilizer.
Is Papaya Toxic?
The milky papaya sap (latex) can be slightly caustic to the skin, so it's best to avoid the sticky white sap whenever possible.
Symptoms of Toxicity
The sap in the leaves, stems, and unripe fruit can cause irritation and rash to the skin—a reaction that can be painful in individuals who are highly sensitive. This rarely needs medical attention, other than washing it off and treating the skin with an ointment designed to soothe dermatitis reactions.
It's impossible to know precisely what variety of papaya you are buying when selecting fruits at the grocery store, nor does it really make any difference, since you are growing it as a houseplant rather than for fruit. But if you are buying seeds from a commercial source, there are several varieties you can choose from, including some dwarf cultivars that will not require pruning to keep them small.
- 'Waimanolo': This is a compact plant that will bear fruit when it is only 4 feet tall. It is the best choice if you want to actually attempt to grow fruit from your indoor plant. It has small white flowers and produces an orange-yellow fruit about 2 lb. in size.
- 'Sunset': This variety has especially attractive leaves. It grows to about 15 feet in height at maturity and has fruit about 1 pound in size with a pinkish flesh. As a houseplant, though, it is grown for its foliage and does not produce fruit until it is quite tall.
Papaya plants grown indoors grow so fast that they may reach the ceiling in a matter of months. For this reason, they are often pruned off at the top to keep them in check. Cut off the main stem to a couple of feet tall. The plant will send up several new shoots from the base of the plant. When these shoots are a foot or two tall, select the best one and trim off the others, including the original central stem.
If you have moved a potted papaya plant outdoors for the summer, prune it back heavily before bringing it indoors for the cooler months.
How to Grow Papaya from Seeds
Papaya plants sprout readily from seeds, even the seeds harvested from grocery store papaya fruit. To prepare the seeds, scoop them from papaya, spread them out on a single sheet of paper towel, and leave out to dry for a week. At the end of the week, roll the seeds around to remove the dried seed-covering husks, then store them in a cool, dry place.
To sprout papaya seeds, place them in seed-starting soil and keep moist and warm (75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit). Seeds sprout quickly, and the plants will begin rapid growth. When the seedlings are a few inches tall, transplant into larger containers to grow onward as houseplants.
Potting and Repotting Papaya
Papaya plants grown from seeds should be repotted only once: from the seed-starting container into a larger permanent container. Unless you live in USDA Zone 9 or higher, your papaya is a single-season novelty plant. It's best to grow them in fairly large containers (at least three gallons) as part of a mixed container. At the end of the season, cut the papaya off at the soil level and let the other shoots fill in.
Indoor papaya plants rarely flower and produce fruit, especially when grown from seeds harvested from the grocery store fruit. However, if you have a dwarf variety and have given it enough heat and light, it's possible it will produce fruits within six to 12 months of planting. Pick them from the tree just after the fruits have turned fully yellow. It's best to store them in the refrigerator for two to three days before eating papaya fruits.