University of Florida scientists want to make Florida papayas sweeter

This could give South Florida mangoes some friendly competition each summer

Papaya slices shot by @m_tubbs on Instagram. (Courtesy of @m_tubbs on Instagram)

HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Move over, mangoes and bananas. There is an old, yet reliable, fruit in town that is getting a complete makeover in 2021.

Meet the papaya — but not as you know it. Scientists over at the University of Florida are conducting new research that can provide South Florida commercial papaya growers with additional options and a competitive edge in the dessert fruit market.

The scientists at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) in Homestead have embarked on a trial to find new varieties that grow well in South Florida and possess valuable traits for future breeding work (think sweetness, color, and aroma).

Some of these new types of papaya include “solo” papayas that, historically, have not been widely grown in southern Florida.

However, this all may change.

A solo papaya grown at UF/IFAS Tropical Research and Education Center as part of a trial to find new varieties. Photo by UF/IFAS. (Courtesy of University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS))

“This research is timely as growers are looking for higher value crops that resonate with consumers,” says Alan Chambers, a tropical plant geneticist at the UF/IFAS. “Additionally, consumers are looking for novel fruit and fruit with superior quality.”

The trial analyzed 21 papaya varieties that would grow great in South Florida and yield plenty of crop, but also yield delicious, beautiful-looking papaya.

And some are definitely tastier than others.

“This work helped us identify diverse papaya cultivars that grow well in southern Florida,” Chambers added. “It also identified many types that should be avoided due to poor yield or quality.”

The trial featured diverse papaya cultivars, which are often categorized as either large papayas referred to as “Mexican” or “Formosan” papayas, or small, pear-shaped papayas known as “solo” types.

While one “solo” variety was found to have traits that may negatively affect fruit flavor for consumers, the rest were deliciously sweet, and it turns out this variety might be the “cash cow” for producers and farmers.

“One of our major objectives in the trial identifies the best ‘solo’ type papaya for southern Florida,” explains Chambers. “These papayas are worth more than common papayas, and they have a superior flavor,” he added.

According to Chambers, “solo” papayas also lack the “musky” aroma that draws potential shoppers away from the fruit at the grocery store and farmers markets.

“We are working to address these challenges through our papaya research and breeding program,” explains Sarah Brewer, a graduate research assistant on the team. “The ultimate goal is to develop virus-resistant, ‘solo’ papayas that grow well here in Miami-Dade County.”

Cultivation of “solo” papayas in South Florida may benefit both growers and consumers. Solo papayas are known for their sweetness and flavor -- some even have a higher sugar content than the “Maradol” variety that are usually sold in Miami-Dade County.

“In addition to delighting consumers with outstanding flavor, ‘solo’ papayas may entice growers with the potential for higher profits,” said Brewer. “In 2020, ‘solo’ papayas retailed for nearly one and half times the price of ‘Maradol’ and other large-fruited varieties.”

The U.S. is the leading importer of papaya with 192,070 metric tons in 2019. Papaya is also cultivated throughout South and Central America, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, India, Africa, Australia, and the Pacific Islands.

As of 2018, annual global production of papaya exceeded 13 million metric tons, making it the fourth most popular tropical fruit after bananas, mango, and pineapple.

Papayas are grown year-round, largely in the Miami-Dade County area.

Unfortunately, expansion of the papaya industry in South Florida has been hindered by low prices and a lack of varieties resistant to the papaya ringspot virus (PRSV).

However, this might just change. Identifying “solo” papaya varieties that perform well in southern Florida (and command a premium price) may make the papaya one of the most profitable fruits in the world.

For more information on the work of UF/IFAS, click here.