Papaya, betik, on the tree

Man Papaya

As large as papaya, as small as keranji,
Break a branch and the fruit falls down
A face so lovely with manners so ugly
Like rain falling murky and brown

Besar betik kecil keranji [1]
Patah dahan buahnya luruh
Muka cantik perangai keji
Bagai hujan airnya keruh

Growing papaya, or betik, from seed is easy enough – sow them on loose soil straight from the fruit and they’ll come up without trouble. The tough part is figuring out if your tree is a boy or a girl.

Papaya fruit, buah betik

It sounds strange, but there are a fair number of plants out there that bear different flowers on separate trees, making the trees effectively male and female. Male tree flowers only produce pollen and can’t bear fruit, while the female trees won’t bear fruit without a source of pollen somewhere in the area. Marijuana is probably the most well known plant of this kind in North America. In the tropics it is a lot more common.  Rambutans are also this way, for instance. Papaya and rambutan appear together in a traditional pantun:

Rambutans hanging red and bright
A papaya tree by the fence has grown
Good men need not be taught the right
A thorn in the jungle is sharp on its own

Batang betik di tepi pagar
Buah rambutan[2] merah berseri
Orang baik tak payah diajar
Duri di hutan tajam sendiri [3]

Mak Mertua If there is a way to sex papayas prior to flowering, I don’t know what it is. And so trees I spent months growing to maturity have turned out male: lots of flowers but no fruit. My mother-in-law’s not one to recite pantuns, but she does enjoy colorful language; she once cursed stylish, boastful, useless men as betik jantan, male papayas – all show and no results.  I don’t curse them but they do get the axe.  The trees, I mean, not the useless men.

Papaya leaf

If you are stuck with a male papaya, it’s not a total loss.  The young leaves are edible if you boil them a while.  They are tough and bitter like mustard or collard greens, but palatable with a dose of sambal. The fruits are just wonderful though, with a melt-in-your-mouth consistency, and very soothing on the belly after a meal. Scientists will tell you this is because they contain the enzyme papain, contemporary woo says it’s because they are an alkaline food, while your bomoh or dukun may have explanations that touch on the realm of the unseen. Go with what works for you.

1. Keranji previously on BGP

2. Rambutan previously on BGP

3. Pantuns sourced from Malay Civilization, English translation mine.