Imagine a container plant that grows a lush 6 feet tall and produces delicious, soft-skinned, seedless tropical fruits. Introducing… the babaco tree.
Also known as mountain papaya, babaco is cousin to that other sweet tropical fruit of mammoth size. Commonly eaten fresh, or used in fruit salads, smoothies, and ice cream, babaco (Carica pentagona Heilborn) is believed to be a naturally occurring hybrid from Ecuador. People have been eating babaco fruit since the 1500s, but I had never heard of it until recently.
These herbaceous shrubs feature thick, mostly unbranched trunks that are covered with leaf scars, similar to other members of the Carica genus. The healthier the plant, the thicker the trunk. Large, palmate leaves, with prominent veins and long petioles, make this an attractive house or patio plant. Flowers are all female and fruit is generated parthenocarpically. That’s a big word which means without seeds. And it’s the fruit that should make babaco worth considering for those of us who prefer growing our own food. Five-sided babaco fruit is large, reaching 12” in length and 8” wide. Said to taste like a combination of strawberry, papaya, and pineapple, the fruit is somewhat acidic and not overly sweet. The skin is also edible.
How babaco grows
Babaco performs best in cool subtropical climates. Too much sun exposure can result in sunburned fruit and immature fruit drop. While it prefers coastal areas, babaco can be grown it semi-protected areas throughout California and other Mediterranean regions. While babaco can withstand brief exposure to freezing temperatures (>28°F), they are best brought indoors or put in a protected place during the coldest part of winter to avoid root rot. Babaco plants can easily be grown in containers and they thrive in greenhouses (or warm, moist homes).
How to grow babaco
Since babaco do not produce seeds, they are propagated vegetatively, or asexually. To do this, one foot diagonal segments are taken from an existing trunk, after fruit production is completed. These segments are first washed with a fungicide and then the bottom (rooting) side is dipped in rooting hormone. Segments are then stored vertically in a location where they can dry out and form calluses, much the way we treat pineapples. In time, roots and shoots will begin to appear and the segment of trunk is planted 8” below soil level. In just a little over a year, your babaco will be producing fruit!
For the best fruit production, prune out any additional trunks as soon as they appear, except for one trunk, sometime around September, every year or two. This new trunk will replace the existing trunk. Trunks are only productive for a year or two. Babaco can also be propagated from cuttings, but with less success.
Babaco grows best in light, well-drained soil. They require frequent irrigation and nitrogen feeding during fruit production. Mulching with composted chicken bedding will help your babaco tree thrive.
Pests and diseases of babaco
Babaco leaves are susceptible to fungal diseases, such as powdery mildew. Phytophthora root rot can also become a problem. Certain mites, specifically the two spotted mite and the strawberry mite can become problematic, as can snails and slugs, and deer.
Add a touch of the tropics to your home or patio with a delicious babaco!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!