Papaya originated in the tropics of the Americas, but is now widely cultivated around the world, particularly in the tropical climates of Asia, Africa and Polynesia. It is understood to have arrived in Australia around 1875, when a British physician discovered its medicinal properties and started using papaya to treat patients in a Brisbane hospital. The papaya industry in Australia is centred in the tropics, mostly around Innisfail and Mareeba in northern Queensland.
Papayas grow as single-stemmed trees with a crown of large leaves emerging from the highest part of the trunk. They normally live for about 5–10 years, although in commercial plantations they tend to be replanted every 3–4 years, or when they are too tall for easy harvesting.
The size and shape of the papaya fruit depends on the variety, but most are round, pear-shaped or oval, measuring 10–50cm and can weigh from 200g to more than 3kg. The firm flesh is either yellow or orange (red) with an abundance of tart and edible black seeds contained within the central cavity of the fruit.
Papaya production is labour intensive as fruit is produced year round and harvested weekly. However, it is a relatively easy industry to enter as the capital expenditure is not high and the first fruit is ready for harvest in less than a year. Because trees are replaced every few years, growers have some flexibility in entering and leaving the industry, depending on the economics of production.
Many papaya trees in Queensland were destroyed during Cyclone Larry in 2006 and to a lesser extent, during Cyclone Yasi in 2011. However, with government support the industry has developed a strategic plan that aims to develop the industry beyond its previous production levels. The peak body for papaya growers in Australia is Papaya Australia Ltd.
Facts and figures
- Papaya is an exotic tropical fruit that is mostly eaten fresh, but may be used in juices, nectars, purees, jams, jelly or as dried fruit
- Pawpaw (papaw) and Papaya are the same species but two very different fruit. Papaya has red flesh, while pawpaw is yellow, however in Australia the term papaya refers to both fruit
- The industry is relatively easy to enter due to low capital outlay and quick financial returns compared with other fruit or tree crops
- First harvest can take place nine months after planting and then the crop is harvested continually (weekly or twice a week) for the next two years
- The industry is susceptible to opportunistic growth and oversupply
- The fruit is extremely fragile and transporting it to markets can be a challenge.
In 2006, Cyclone Larry devastated the industry, with a total loss of between 65% and 95% of fruit-bearing trees. Since then, government support and an Australian Industry Strategic Plan have been implemented to ensure the industry recovers and exceeds former production levels in the future.
While Australian papaya production is very small compared with other countries and very small quantities of Australia’s papayas are exported. Almost all of the imports were from Fiji, with a small amount from Thailand.
Australia’s papayas are grown mainly in the tropical regions of Innisfail and Mareeba in northern Queensland. Small amounts are also grown in the Northern Territory, southern Queensland, the Kimberly and Carnarvon regions of Western Australia, and northern New South Wales.