How does your garden grow?
By Eric Danell,
Male Papaya flowers are disgusting
Male flowers have only stamens
and can not make fruit. Even from a distance you can tell they are male,
because they form in clusters on long flexible stalks. The rule is not
absolute, sometimes you get female flowers intermixed.
Most plants are monoecious, i.e. they make hermaphroditic
flowers carrying both female (pistil) and male parts (stamens). In papaya
the flowers may have different genders (dioecious).
A male papaya tree is not good for the farmer who wants delicious fruit from
female flowers. The Seehamongkol family considers a male to be ‘another
variety’ and they simply cut it down. I read that some people eat the male
flowers, and so I asked Nived to cook them. She said nobody eats them, and
she said she had never seen them for sale anywhere in Thailand. I insisted,
and although Nived boiled the flowers before stir-frying, they were terribly
bitter! Although the family enjoys equally bitter gall bladder, neem leaves
and midnight horror fruits, these flowers were disgusting even to them.
Recently Aini Zakaria from Malaysia, a soil scientist and a former student
at Lund University, explained that in Malaysia they cook the male flowers of
papaya together with leaves of Malabar blackmouth (Melastoma malabathricum)
1:1, and then they discard the water and the black mouth’s leaves. The
purpose is to make the flowers less bitter. This morning we tried her recipe
(boiling for 30 minutes) and it works!
According to one visitor to Dokmai Garden one can change a papaya male to
become a female by damaging the tree, such as carving a cross. Theoretically
the stress induces a hormonal change aimed at making fruits and seeds,
ultimately the papaya tries to escape this poor place where you apparently
get stabbed. If this works or not is something I wish to see with my own
eyes. However, if nothing happens you may argue the stress (the carving) was
not severe enough, and if something do happen you may argue it might have
happened of other reasons. To scientifically test this technique, you need
at least 50 males of each treatment. However, a small scale test is a pilot
study to give you a hunch.
Why would a papaya tree make male flowers in the first place? Male pollen
fertilizing female flowers (sex) cause a recombination of genes. The greater
the genetic diversity among the seeds, the greater the chances some
offspring will survive an ever-changing world. One alternative is cloning,
creating identical offspring, which is risky if the environment changes.
Another alternative is self recombination, but that constitutes less variety
than in sexual reproduction.
A female papaya do not need pollen, she can make fruits anyhow.
Interestingly, papaya can also make hermaphroditic flowers. One type has a
round ovary and makes round fruits, one has an elongated ovary and makes
peculiar long fruits. Some home gardeners believe that these odd-looking
fruits are due to some disease, but it is just normal variation.
When cutting down a papaya you realize the stem is soft (more herb-like than
woody) and even hollow at the base. The stem is so soft you can not build
anything from it, and it deteriorates quickly after logging. Feed it to the
pigs, and use the leaves for wrapping and tenderizing meat; the enzyme
papain degrades protein.
Papaya is easy to grow in Chiang Mai, but water logging will kill it. You
will get your first fruits quickly after planting a seedling, usually within
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