My Papaya Tree

Time spent in Lalbagh Botanical Gardens constitutes some of my best memories of Bangalore. When we were kids, we regularly went on a weekly picnic to Lalbagh with our neighbors and spent a fun-filled day there, never wanting to return home. The most pleasurable activity we looked forward to was “tree climbing”. Lalbagh had the best trees to climb – huge old ones with low and thick branches. It used to be great fun getting onto them and trying to see who can reach the highest point first, and it usually was me because I was very good at this activity. Apart from climbing trees, we climbed the small granite hill, visited the glass house and the deer enclosure, and sometimes went to look at the lake.

However, after I started my garden I visited Lalbagh quite a few times not to climb trees but to buy some trees. The nursery there was one of the best in town and had hundreds of varieties of plants. I still remember the fine spring day Mary and I bought a lot of saplings from there: Mango, Guava, Lemon, Wood Apple, Chikoo, Coconut, Curry Leaves and Papaya.

There was a gardener helping us out and answering our questions. Of course, the first trees I looked for were mango. I’ve always loved mango trees for some reason, whenever I see them I’m reminded of many stories I’ve read and found them very romantic. So we picked up a few different varieties – Badami, Banganapalli, Chittoor, and Alphonso. And very excitedly I asked him “When can I expect to get the fruits?” He replied “There will be flowers and fruits after 2-3 years, but you should pluck them and throw them away and not let them grow, because the tree’s growth will be stunted if you let it fruit early. They’ll be fully grown in five years, and then you can have the fruits”. This was a really disappointing answer because five years sounded like aeons to a ten year old 🙁 🙁

We next went to the guava section and his answer was the same, same with Chikoo and Coconut, and I was feeling rather glum. Lemon trees were a bit better, they took 2-3 years, but I didn’t think of lemons as fruits. But still not giving up hope entirely, I asked him “Is there no tree that will fruit in a year’s time? There must be something.”

He then looked a bit amused and somewhat worried himself and paused to think deeply and looked around the nursery. And something seemed to ring a bell, he smiled and said, “Yes, there are papayas”. I should have jumped for joy after hearing this, but instead, I screwed up my nose and said: “But, I hate papayas, they’re too smelly”.

“No, no, we have one wonderful variety that’s very sweet and not at all smelly, you should take 4-5 of those”. Four or five (!), when I can’t bear the thought of one? So I replied, “One is enough, I don’t want too many”. “Well, you always have to buy more than one papaya plant, because you can’t tell if the one you’ve bought is a male or female plant until later. Do you know that only female papaya plants bear fruit, and that you only need a single male one around them to fertilize the fruit? You can later uproot the extra males.”

I opened my eyes in amazement after hearing this, it sounded very interesting. “How will I know which ones are male and female later on?” “You can tell by the flowers. The male flowers have really long stalks, while the female flowers have very short stalks and are close to the tree trunk.” “Okay, I’ll take four of them then”, I replied.

That ended our shopping spree that day, and we came home triumphantly with around 14-15 tree saplings. Mary’s sons who lived with her, came to help with the digging and planting the next day. It was great fun trying to decide which tree to plant where and I took quite some time planning it out, but was never entirely satisfied with my plan. Many times, I’d look at my garden and think that I could have made a better planting layout for the trees. However, the deed was done and there was no point ruminating about it. It was better to look forward and wait for the fruiting.

The papaya tree did fruit very early within a year and it turned out to be a great decision to buy it. 3 of the 4 plants I bought turned out to be male, so I uprooted 2 males and was left with one male and one female plant. These two were a brilliant pair because the papayas we got were indeed very sweet, delicious and non-smelly. In fact, everyone who tasted them wanted the seeds to plant in their own garden. We used to proudly tell everyone that one lady who visited us from America also took back some of our papaya seeds to the US, to plant in her own garden there! 🙂 🙂

PS: This is a recent photo of a papaya tree from a neighbor’s garden. Don’t have a photo of my old papaya tree.

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