Gardening Articles: Edibles :: Fruit & Nut Trees

Meet Babaco

by David and Tina Silber

Imagine yourself in the cool and misty mountain valleys of Ecuador. It was there--no one knows exactly when--that a horticultural miracle occurred. A new type of papaya appeared, one perfectly suited to home-garden growing: The six-foot-high plant is completely adaptable to container growing, and it fruits prolifically. Grow it outdoors anywhere it doesn't freeze, and in pots everywhere else.

The large fruits of this natural hybrid are fragrant and torpedo-shaped, with five flattened facets. Sliced crosswise, they have a pentagonal outline. Known to the natives as bab-co, they are delicious to eat.

The flavor is kind of like pineapple and banana, but not as sweet, and quite different from that of Hawaiian papayas. The fruits contain three times as much papain, a digestive enzyme, as common papayas, as well as a full complement of vitamins and minerals. In short, babaco earns its keep.

One of several papayas indigenous to Ecuador, babaco has long been cultivated throughout the inter-Andean region of Ecuador from the Loja Province northward to El Carchi, usually between 5,900 feet and 9,500 feet in elevation. It was classified as Carica pentagona by the European plant explorer O. Heilborn in 1921. Babacos are sterile, so are propagated only by cuttings.

As with all papayas, babaco is not a tree but a large evergreen plant that resembles a small palm. It grows quickly to its mature height of about six feet and width of about four feet. The one- to two-foot-wide leaves are smooth and hairless, with broad lobes. Healthy plants make as many as 30 fruits a season, each one eight to 12 inches long and four inches in diameter, and weighing one to two pounds. The plants can live and fruit for up to 20 years--but most don't. A typical life span is four to eight years.

The seedless fruit starts out with a green skin. Upon ripening, it turns golden yellow and develops a pronounced fruity aroma, without the muskiness of the common papaya. Squishy-soft fruits are the mavorful. The juicy flesh is about two inches thick, creamy white, fragrant and acid. Texture is similar to that of a casaba melon. Fruits harvested half-yellow will ripen indoors at room temperature.

The thin skin is completely edible. Chop up half a fruit and drop it into a blender with orange juice and a banana. Or, sprinkle the fruit with sugar and set it in the refrigerator for a few hours to enhance the flavor. Sweetened bab-co is tasty combined with dairy products such as yogurt.

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