Every September for the past 25 years, thousands of people have descended on a field in southeastern Ohio to celebrate the largest edible native tree fruit in North America: the papaya. With a creamy-yellow flesh and a flavor somewhere between mango and banana, papayas are eaten raw, made into sauces and chutneys, or brewed at the Ohio Papaya Festival, which celebrates the fruit’s flavor and its place in Appalachia. History.
This year, more people than ever have come to learn about the plant, watching cooking demonstrations, watching local chefs make papaya salsa and even buying saplings to plant in their backyards. Dozens of people gathered under a white tent to hear Brian Koscho, an Ohio artist and creator of the Appalachian History podcast, talk about the plant’s native roots. Papayas, he said, “have had an impact not just in this region, but far beyond.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic stymied agricultural supply chains, interest in local foods soared, and papaya quickly became a tasty symbol of a more resilient food system. Known in some circles as the “hipster banana,” the green, fist-sized fruit found its way into Brooklyn rooftop gardens, bars, and country magazine cocktail lists, as well as amateur fruit growers in California, far beyond its native range. The industry expanded from pickers and a handful of independent producers selling fruit at farmers markets to a growing number of small farms from West Virginia to Massachusetts.
But just as the fruit is finding its place in the growing local food movement, it is being threatened by climate change and more extreme weather patterns. Plant biologists at the University of Georgia recently discovered that while rising global temperatures will open up new suitable regions for papaya growth, these changes may be happening too quickly for wild plants to adapt.
“It’s not just warming, it’s more temperature extremes,” Sheri Crabtree, a papaya researcher at Kentucky State University, says of the various challenges the plant faces going forward. About two weeks early, but temperature fluctuations can cause severe freezes after they bloom, which can reduce crop yields.
Papayas are currently grown in more than two dozen states, stretching from the eastern United States to parts of Nebraska, Kansas and Texas. But their heartland is Appalachia, where they’re mentioned in song and incorporated into regional recipes for generations; at least six states have towns named after the fruit. Before British colonization, the native peoples of the area harvested papaya fruit and used the bark as a building material; tribes like the Shawnee were forced to move west in the 19th century as Americans tried to settle their lands, and thereafter They grow papayas on their Oklahoma reservation, keeping in touch with their ancestors’ way of eating.
Plants have a variety of strategies to adapt to climate change, from developing drought resistance to migrating to new areas, thanks to pollinators and animals that disperse their seeds. But these adaptations take time—establishing new populations is especially difficult for papaya, whose pollinators, such as flies, beetles, opossums, foxes and raccoons, don’t typically travel long distances.
The University of Georgia researchers also found that because of low genetic diversity, it’s unclear whether those papayas that managed to gain a foothold elsewhere would have the same variety and quality of edible fruit as we know today. A 2015 report by the US Forest Service came to similar conclusions.
Papaya seeds need a period of cold to germinate in spring; at the southern end of their range, they may not get it as temperatures warm. In most places, though, growers want plants to thaw, bloom and mature earlier in the year, requiring them to plan their harvest accordingly. Ron Powell, former president of the North American Papaya Growers Association (NAPGA), said he has noticed some changes: His orchard of about 500 papaya trees is ripening weeks earlier than usual. In late July, a drought in southwestern Ohio reduced his harvest to about a third of normal.
Chris Chimere, founder of the Ohio Papaya Festival and fruit grower, said gatherers still make up a large portion of the harvest, and they may be especially vulnerable because of changing weather patterns that affect where papayas are found in the wild. These plants prefer low elevations and nutrient-rich, moist soils along creeks or rivers, a habitat that has been reduced by urbanization and large-scale agriculture in much of the Midwest and Appalachia. Climate change is expected to bring more extreme droughts and heavy rains to the region—both of which are bad for papayas, Chimir said.
Chmiel said harvests of course vary from year to year, but he has also noticed changes recently, with one-third of his trees dead. He said he wasn’t sure why that happened, but noted heavy rain could be a factor. He is working with scientists at Ohio State University to address this question.
“We’ve had a lot of rain events [where] Instead of two inches, we got four to six inches,” Chmiel said. “We had a spring a few years ago and it rained non-stop for six weeks. I looked at that and I think these papaya trees are really stressed. ”
Still, growers like Powell aren’t too worried, at least in the short term. The core of the Appalachian papaya range is likely to remain suitable for growth over the next century, and strategies such as irrigation can help stave off the effects of more frequent droughts.
Researchers are also working to breed new varieties of plants that can better adapt to changing conditions, Crabtree said. Her lab at Kentucky State University is developing late-blooming varieties to avoid damage from late spring frosts and ripen earlier to accommodate shorter growing seasons in more northern climates. Both could help growers deal with the effects of climate change on their crops.
“I think they’re going to survive,” Powell said. “They may be better able to adapt to climate change than we are.”