Vasconcellea x heilbornii

Common name: Babaco

Other common names: Champagne fruit, Mountain paw paw, Heilbron

Names in non-English languages: Spanish

Description

Babaco is a mountain papaya species originating in the highlands of Ecuador and Colombia and is believed to be a naturally occurring hybrid of Carica stipulate and Carica pubescens.

The plant is a small herbaceous shrub similar in appearance to other papaya species but only grows 1.5 to 3 m (5 to 10 ft) tall.

Similar to papaya, it has an erect semi-woody or softwood trunk that is green when young, becoming grey-brown with age and is marked by leaf scars. Generally, the thicker the trunk the more vigorous the plant and the more productive it is likely to be. It occasionally branches and shoots often appear around the base.

The leaves are very large, dark green, deeply lobed, prominently ribbed and veined, and attached to the trunk with a long hollow leaf-stalk. They are alternately arranged along the top half of the trunk and remain on the plant for four to six months before they die-back and fall to the ground.

The flowers are bell-shaped with five creamy-white petals, dark green sepals and are borne in the leaf axis.They are all female but do not require pollination and bloom without seasonal influence about three months after planting.

The flowers are followed by elongated, five-sided papaya-like fruit up to 30 cm (1 ft) long that weigh from 1 to 2 kg (2.2 to 4.4 lbs) each, but can be larger. They are green when young, become bright orange-yellow when ripe and ripen in progression from the lowest fruit to those higher on the trunk. There are no seed produced.

Use

The fruit are fragrant, seedless and flavoursome but with a distinctly different aroma and taste to papaya. The pulp is creamy-white, juicy with a melting texture and with a pleasingly sub-acid to slightly acid flavour, likened to strawberry with a hint of pineapple. It is mostly eaten fresh out-of-hand and is easy to prepare because it is eaten with the skin on and there are no seed to remove. It can also be made into juice, dried fruit or jam.

Climate

Grows naturally in sub-humid to humid subtropical and tropical highland climates, generally in areas with annual lows of 10 to 17 °C, annual highs of 20 to 28 °C, annual rainfall of 700 to 1800 mm and a dry season of 4 months or less.

Growing

New plants are started from cuttings because seed are not produced. Cuttings are obtained by dividing the trunk of mature plants into slender sections around 30 cm (1 ft) long and 5 cm (2 in) in diameter. These are then dipped in a fungicide bath and the rooting end in a rooting hormone before being planted in a free-draining potting mix, where they usually strike roots within two to three months.

Performs best on organically rich, well-drained loam and sand soils of a moderately acid to slightly alkaline nature, generally with a pH of 5.5 to 7.5 and on sites with full to partial sun exposure.

Well tended plants start bearing fruit when about one year old and then continuously thereafter for two years, after-which they become unproductive and die, though they may be used before then for propagating cuttings.

The fruit are harvested when they begin to turn from green to yellow and before they are fully ripe. When properly harvested and carefully packed, Babaco fruit remain in good condition for more than a month at 6 °C. The fruit does not oxidise (turn brown) over time.

Yields are better than that of papaya and intensive cultivation has yielded up to 100,000 kgs to the hectare, with 40,000 to 60,000 kgs per hectare (35,680 to 53,500 lbs per acre) more usual. It has been grown commercially with varying degrees of success in Ecuador, Australia, New Zealand, France, Spain, Italy, California and Israel.

Problem features

It is recorded as having escaped cultivation and as naturalised on the Galapagos Islands, but there does not appear to be any record of it anywhere as a weed.

Where it grows

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