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BOTANICAL NAME: Carica pentagona (Family: Caricaceae)

COMMON NAME: Mountain Papaya, Babaco

ORIGIN: It is a naturally occurring hybrid between the mountain pawpaw and the Chamburo, and originates in Ecuador. It has been cultivated there since before the arrival of Europeans.

PLANT DESCRIPTION: It is an herbaceous shrub, similar to the pawpaw, but the fleshy stems are darker and shorter. It grows to 2-2½ metres. The thickness of the trunk is associated with the vigour of the plant. The leaves are 30-60 cm wide, smooth and hairless with broad lobes. The leaves have an average life of 4-6 months. The plants produce female flowers only (usually solitary on the end of a long pendulous stalk), and no male trees or pollen are required for Babaco to fruit. It is not a long lived tree (4-8 years) but it is ornamental, easily propagated from cuttings and on the right scale for a small garden. It could also be grown in a large container.

FRUIT DESCRIPTION: Each fruit is borne on a long stalk, and grows up to 30cm long by 10 cm wide with 5 longitudinal ridges (distinctly 5 sided and pointed). Each can weigh up to 2kg, and they are generally seedless, juicy and fragrant. The fruit turns from green to yellow at maturity and is rich in vitamin C (a 100g slice contains about the same as an orange). The flesh is about 50cm thick and creamy white and the thin skin is completely edible. It also contains 3 times as much papain (a digestive enzyme) as common paw-paws.

FRUIT TASTE: It has been described as a blend of pineapple and pawpaw (and banana & strawberry?) but because of low sugar content, it may not compare well with the sweeter flavoured pawpaw. It is light, acid and slightly effervescent (hence it’s other name “champagne fruit’).

FRUITING AGE: Fruit is produced about 15 months after the cuttings are planted out.

FRUIT USES: Its juice is a popular drink in Ecuador. The fruit is eaten raw when yellow or the green fruit can be used as a vegetable, though it needs to be well cooked (best in curries or made into chutney). Babaco syrup is also sold commercially in South America. Pieces of the fruit can be added to fruit salads. Babaco can be processed in a blender with sugar/honey as a drink, or with ice cream/frozen yoghurt as a milkshake. The latex (like that of paw-paws, figs etc) is quite corrosive when liquid and should be wiped away or allowed to dry up if the fruit is to be eaten raw. The riper the fruit, the less of a problem this is. This latex is an excellent remedy for warts and can be applied to the wart several times a day until it is burned away. The Incas used Babaco to treat obesity and stress problems. The enzyme papain emulsifies fats and breaks down cholesterol and protein. Papain is an ingredient of commercially produced meat tenderizers. Because of its low sugar content, it is perfect for slimmers.

CLIMATE, RAINFALL AND TEMPERATURE: It grows between 2000-3000 metres in Ecuador, and is moderately cold tolerant compared to pawpaw, with a temperature range of 5oC to 20oC. It fruits in temperate climates where paw-paw does not ‘set’ or ripen. The optimum humidity for growing Babaco is 75% -85%. The plant is sensitive to high temperatures and low humidity. Temperatures over 30oC may result in sunburnt fruit and internal water stress, even though adequate irrigation is provided. Plants exposed to full sun in these conditions may drop most of their immature fruit in an effort to conserve water. The plants must be protected from strong winds. If the summers are hot you could try growing Babaco in large containers and move them to a cooler location in the warmer months. They can set fruit indoors as well as outside. Plantings should be done between September and March.

FROST TOLERANCE: Babaco can withstand a few degrees of frost, but are more susceptible to root rot if they have been injured by frost. To avoid blemishes and cold/frost damage, New Zealand Babaco growers cultivate the plant in greenhouses with controlled temperatures.

SUN OR SHADE:  A sheltered spot with broken shade in summer and sun in winter would be similar to its natural home in open forest. It won’t set fruit if it does not have a reasonable amount of sun. Shadecloth may be needed to minimize summer temperatures here.

SOIL PREFERENCE: It prefers well drained soil with plenty of humus/ organic matter and a pH. of

6-6.5. The plant will not tolerate salty water or soil. If the plant is grown in a container, then the potting mix should contain a large proportion of perlite/bark etc, rather than peat moss which is too water retentive.

DRAINAGE: Babaco is subject to root rot if the soil is poorly drained or heavy clay.

WATER: Water sparingly after planting as the roots are especially sensitive to excess watering just after transplanting. After that, the soil should be allowed to dry partially between watering. Overhead watering increases the risk of fungal infection and splitting of near-ripe fruit, so microspray or minisprinkler irrigation is considered best. Babaco plants require ample water for optimum production, but they dislike wet soil.

MULCHING: It prefers matured compost or leaf mould rather than manure. Mulch is important as the roots will grow up into the organic matter for nutrients and air.

WEED CONTROL: The mulch will suppress weed growth. Herbicides should be used with caution and should not come in to contact with the extremely sensitive tissue of the Babaco trunk.

FERTILIZING: A slow release fertilizer at planting time is desirable. Under fertilized plants produce small fruit. The plants have a high phosphate requirement (N:P:K of 1:3:1). [Some New Zealand growers have suggested 15:10:10]. Chicken litter is considered an ideal fertilizer as it is high in phosphate and has the advantage of increasing organic matter (5-10 kg per sq. metre per year is suggested. Plants also need an adequate supply of calcium (gypsum or ground limestone) depending on your soil. Boron, zinc and other trace elements need to be applied for best results.

FLOWERING: Flowers will appear soon after the first Spring growth and some should set fruit. Flowers form on new wood only. Sunlight intensity, temperature and day length variation all affect flowering and hence fruiting.

FRUIT DEVELOPMENT/HARVESTING:  The fruits ripen in progression from the lowest fruits, usually the heaviest, to those higher up the trunk. These smaller fruit constitute up to 10% -20% of the crop. The plants will need staking to prevent straining under the load of developing fruit. They are shallow rooted and are easily blown over when fully laden with fruit so wind protection is essential. It takes about a year to reach full size, and a further 8 – 10 weeks to ripen. The tree should not be allowed to completely dry out during this time, or the fruit will fall off. High temperatures may also result in sunburned fruit and immature fruit drop.

PRUNING: After harvesting the fruit, you can either leave the tree to form branches (in which case the fruits in the next crop will be smaller in size) or you can cut it off 10 cm above ground level. The shoots that form around the base of the plant should all be removed except one, and this can be allowed to become the main trunk.

YIELD: A healthy plant can have 25-100 fruits a season, depending on growing conditions and cultural practices (usually about 30).

PROPAGATION: Babaco does not set seed but may be propagated easily from cuttings. A tall straggly plant can be revitalized by cutting it off about 200 mm above the ground in Spring. It will promptly resprout. Leave 1 or 2 sprouts to develop into new fruiting trunks. The old trunk can be used for cuttings by cutting each into about 30 cm lengths, each with at least one auxiliary bud. The cuttings should be dipped in fungicide and the rooting end dipped in a rooting hormone. The cuttings are then set vertically in sand or sandy loam to form calluses. With the first signs of roots and the beginning of new leaves, they can be planted out, about 200 mm below ground level.

HARVESTING: Fruit is normally harvested in Oct-Dec and should be removed with clippers. Fruits harvested half yellow will ripen indoors at room temperature.

TRANSPORTABILITY AND PACKAGING: The ripe fruit should be placed stem down in a container to prevent sap running over it. When picked 30% yellow, the fruit has a shelf life of up to 4 weeks.

PESTS AND DISEASES: It is important to start from virus free material. Overwatering and too much nitrogenous fertilizer may induce Phytophthora root rot. If this happens, plants can be propagated from portions of the trunk as above. Fungal diseases can affect the leaves in moist humid conditions. Plants can be affected by powdery mildew and yellow mosaic virus. The major pests affecting the Babaco are the two spotted mite, the strawberry mite and the broad mite. Control can be difficult because most miticides are phytotoxic to Babaco leaves. Predatory mites can give reasonable control. Thrip can cause superficial skin blemishes. There have also been reports of nematode infestation. Slugs and snails can damage the fruit.Some plants could suffer from collar rot in cool wet conditions.

COMMERCIAL POTENTIAL: Babaco was promoted and planted in parts of Australia in the 1980’s, but root rot, pest and disease, and low market prices saw a reduction in the area grown. They are grown on a small scale commercially in New Zealand and the Middle East. Because most growers send their Babaco to market green, buyers could be disappointed with the flavour. The low natural sugar content has resulted in serious doubt about the fruit’s consumer acceptability, as it would have to compete on the Australian market with the sweeter flavoured papaw. The most successful commercial plantings in Australia have been in shadehouses which provide protection from wind and hail. However, the low fruit prices may negate the capital intensive greenhouse/shadehouse planting. Some Babaco is grown in New Zealand and exported to Japan, while Ecuador exports to the US, Belgium, Holland and Switzerland.

Compiled by Bruce Hallett. References:The Sub-Tropical Fruit Club newsletter of Feb. 2000 had an article about Louis Glowinski growing Babaco (among other fruits) in Melbourne.  There was also an article in the newsletter of 12/1997.

Agfact H6.1.18 2nd edition 1989; Horticulture News (NZ) May 2001; Aust. Horticulture Dec 1983 & Feb. 1985    

The following are Babaco Notes from other members collated by Sheryl Backhouse:

Richard Poli  It seems they are very cold sensitive here in Brisbane in that they lose almost all of their leaves in winter.  They just get going again and flush in late spring only to be hit heavily by red spider mite (could be the two spotted mite) If you let this go they drop all their leaves again. I have used Rogor in the past season but the degree at which the mites attack is variable and can be almost non existent.  They don’t like wet feet even if grafted, however Phosphoric Acid (Phosjet) seems to give them some benefit when the heavy summer rains persist.  Anyway by the time they get to and get strong enough to flower, set fruit etc it is very much mid to late summer just in time to reach maturity while the leaves are falling off yet again.  So what do they do? They abort the fruit though sometimes if you are lucky you may nearly get them ripe before that happens.  If they abort the fruit even though they are mature they ripen with not much taste. Having said that if all the constellations line up at the right phase of the moon and you get some fruit to tree ripen they are very much sort after by all  family members. I would put it in a protected yet full sun environment with heaps and heaps of mulch and organics.

Peter van Velzen  – Mt. Tamborine   Mites tend to be a problem but can be controlled by Wettable Sulphur as long as it is not too hot.  Need some uses for the fruit as we find it a bit tasteless.  Apart from that, they are easy to grow and take care of themselves.  My trees are all seedlings.  They produce in the first year and are currently 3 years old.

John Prince from New Zealand    I think problems with Babaco reflect several things including (1) trying to grow them in what might be the wrong climate so that they struggle a bit and that makes them prone to disease or insect problems that don’t occur in a climate that’s more natural for them, and (2) a misunderstanding of natural growth habits, plus, probably, (3) the question of their eating quality.

They are a naturally occurring cross [technically best known now, according to one fairly recent scientific paper that I’ve sighted as Vasconcella x heilbornii ‘Babaco’.That is, they are in the Caricaceae family, but are now separated again from Carica papaya. The areas that the more than 20 Vasconcella spp. come from are centred in areas of Andean highlands, although they do range from drier coastal areas into moist subtropics. It may be that Babaco just doesn’t really like your climate. Isn’t red spider mite associated with overly dry conditions? It certainly is here, where it shows up as nuisance on many plants that are being grown indoors, often stressed by unnaturally dry air- as with the young palms that sit a few metres from where I’m writing this, in a sunny window seat area, and in a room heated artificially on cool nights. They crop heavily in northern NZ but are limited by our cool winter temperatures and, as with the other members of the family that are grown here, they eventually resent REALLY wet conditions around their roots. They (i.e. the Vasconcella species that I’m familiar with from growing them here, and from viewing them at other people’s places- perhaps half a dozen species in all) all lose their old leaves at some stage in winter. You are then left with a stem, and with incipient leaf growth, or a few small leaves. That’s completely normal here, and we have no trouble because of this. They come back into growth with warmer weather, set fruit in time, and mature it so that we harvest and eat it without major problems. Outdoor plants, given our spread of moist conditions throughout the year, are not a problem.

 A papaya hybrid that is torpedo shaped and has 5 flattened facets. The skin, which is edible, turns from green to golden yellow depending on level of ripeness.

Mine are in built up beds made of bluestone to store heat and give good drainage. It will flower and fruit in one season in the sub tropics but here it has flowers and green fruit in summer-autumn then from Sept to Dec they ripen, while the next set start growing above this lot. This means you don’t get to cut down the tree to a stump for it to shoot again (if you do you lose a years fruit) so I run two branches and cut them alt years to get fruit every year. the next thing is to cut it off so it shoots out again, this is why I keep 2 branches cos you sacrifice those green fruit before they ripen down our way. I have been told you can use the green fruit to cook with such as in a curry to replace green papaw but I have not tried it yet. Makes lousy wine but a nice spirit. They also freeze whole for later juicing.    If you give them a bit of a chill in the fridge before eating them they are amazing. There is a lot of juice in each one.  Ref:  Peter

Daleys Nursery – Babaco is grafted onto papayuelo rootstock. I didn’t do anything special to my babaco apart from putting it into a 55cm pot with premium potting mix. I added half a kilo of chicken liver into the pot at the beginning and added a layer of mushroom compost at the top. I water it once a week and just a few months later tiny fruits started appearing. I don’t think my fruiting babaco was due to any special technique but more to the suitability of the weather and how much sun it gets. Of the two I bought from the same nursery one fruited in 2 months and the other a year later. The earlier fruited plant was in full sun all day while the other one was in part shade . Ref:  Michael

Propagating Babaco Take cuttings say, about 10 times as long as thick (eg. 2cm dia x 20cm long). Leave to dry and heal the cut ends. You can paint the cut ends with potassium permanganate solution (enough to make water red-purple) as fungicide before drying, but not essential. Put gently into coarse sandy potting mix without breaking sealed cut ie. don’t just shove them in, rather, make hole, insert cutting, backfill/firm down and water. Water once and once only as they’re very sensitive to rotting. Avoid getting the top of cutting wet unnecessarily. stem cutting that is – tips, no worries do them in late winter-spring. They don’t like too hot or too cold, around 25 deg C is optimum. Babaco is an acid fruit more like the Tamarillo, but we have found it very good when used in both icecream (the milk cuts the acid) and in sorbet but the best way to use them has to be baked- slice a whole fruit longways into 1/4’s and place in dish with a touch of apple juice and sprinkle with demerara sugar and bake at 150-180C for 1/2 hour my wife eats a whole fruit for breaky like this with yogurt. 

Sheryl:  Best grafted in the sub-tropics or put them in raised beds.

I suggest you eat it when it still has some green tinges on the edges and its quite firm, other wise we enjoy it teamed with the flesh of a mango as they compliment each other perfectly. Just top & tail the babaco and shove in the blender even with banana and some orange juice, we also freeze this mix for later in plastic cups.

If you think babaco is tasteless, think again! I got a recipe from a South American. They love babaco over there. You just cut it up and stew it with a tiny squeeze of lemon juice, a good helping of sugar and enough cinnamon for your personal taste. I do a variation on this recipe with powdered cardamom instead of cinnamon and it tastes heavenly. You can eat it warm or cold. You don’t have to add water before stewing because babacos are so juicy. I also make babaco jam and babaco marmalade. Delicious! And they grow SO EASILY from cuttings that of my original tree (which took 2 years to fruit, as they all do) I now have six more trees and I could easily take more cuttings. This tree is one of the best plants I have ever bought.  Ref: Violet

Best babaco cuttings I ever had was at a rental of mine. I cut back the babaco, dumped the prunings in the rubbish pit, mowed the lawn and dumped the clippings in the pit on top of the babaco. When I cleaned up the pit 6 months later I found about 100 rooted cuttings. I find when I do propagate them intentionally that they root far better when laid almost fully covered at a 30 degree angle. 

Ariel from Israel   During 1987-9 I was a Babaco consultant to the Guernsey Babaco growers. The island of Guernsey is located in the Gulf Stream near the island of Jersey. I used to fly there every 3 months from Israel and give a lecture, a Babaco workshop for the growers and visit the glasshouse grown plantations. The conditions there were perfect and the entire canopy stayed in full leaf area thus contributing photosynthesis products in both cold and warm weathers. Based on the experienced gained, an annual model for growing Babaco was made up, keeping a specific leaf area to fruit load ratio. Thus, both deleafing and defruiting practices were conducted in order to achieve good quality fruits at specific times of the year. At that time, the Italians were flooding the European markets with their small soft Babaco. The conditions produced leaf and soil sample analysis with values similar to optimal values for papaya. A nice Babaco recipe booklet was published there. I think that most of the horticultural problems were defined and solved by the HAS team and it was nice to work with them. We tried grafting Babaco on papaya and Papaya on Babaco and it was successful. The first conclusion from my visits was that you must start with an excellent plant in the flowering stage with 10 litres roots/volume that should be planted around Sept-Oct (for the Southern Hemisphere) and should set fruit within 1 month from planting. Then, fruit set was allowed for 3 months and then stopped by deflowering all new flowers and fruitlets formed until the plant was cut back.