Name: Papaya (Carica papaya)
Otherwise known as: Medicine Tree, Paw-Paw
Habitat: A herbaceous tree of the Caricaceae family, growing to about 4m in well-drained soil in the tropics and sub-tropics. Originally native to Central America, it can now be found in all tropical and sub-tropical locations. It has large, palmate leaves, which grow directly from the dark green or purple stem, while the aromatic, white, waxy flowers form clusters in the axils. The fruit is golden green with an orange centre, which is packed with round seeds, the fruits hang down on long stems that grow directly from the trunk and may vary, according to the cultivar, from 500g to 5kg.
What does it do: The sap of the fruit contains two enzymes, Papain and Chymopapain, the minerals iron, potassium, phosphorus and calcium; vitamins A, B complex, and C. The plant is diuretic, anti-amoebic, anti-hypertensive, antiseptic, anti-tumour, anti-inflammatory, anti-coagulant, and anthelmintic and digestive.
The ancient Mayan and Aztecs used the leaves to treat jungle sores and ulcers and the fruit to cure intestinal worms. Ropes were made from the bark and the leaves were used as soaps. The fruits provided one of the most nutritious foods known to man.
Papaya is used throughout the tropics as a primary health source; in Indonesia it is a cure for rheumatism; in Africa a treatment for syphilis, yellow fever and dysentery; the people of the Caribbean use the latex from the bark to treat ringworm, psoriasis and topical cancers. In Sri Lanka the plant is used as a contraceptive and an aphrodisiac – it is also used to induce abortion. In Central America the leaves are smoked to treat asthma and the juice is a treatment for corns, warts and tumours of the uterus; in Hawaii the fruit is used to slow the heart beat and lower blood pressure.
In 1982, Papain was approved for use in spinal surgery as a treatment for herniated lumbar discs. At Guy’s Hospital in London a desperately ill kidney transplant patient, whose infected wound would not respond to any antibiotic was cured by having strips of papaya laid across the incision, which completely healed in seven days.
The enzymes are employed in the treatment of cirrhosis of the liver and in reducing enlargement of the spleen following malaria.
Papaya has recently come to prominence as a method for treating obesity and as a constituent of cosmetic facial surgery.
Extracts from the leaf are included in cosmetic skin cleansers and as a way of removing freckles; a compound from the leaf is used in tanning agents.