In the heart of the Wilshire Park historic district, Horacio Fuentes has built a garden with the feel of his native El Salvador. It begins by the sidewalk, where a pito coral tree grows, planted 15 years ago. It hasn't yet produced the dramatic red flowers that, when eaten, are said to prompt a deep sleep with intense, erotic dreams. Maybe it's too cold here, Fuentes said.
He's had more success with his papayas. The plants are scattered around the frontyard, low enough to harvest, each with a cluster of ripening fruit pushing out from the main trunk. Fuentes repeatedly tried to grow them when he started his garden, but the plants never produced usable fruit. Then his father told him a secret about growing papayas.
Before transplanting months-old seedlings, he scores the side of the plant on two sides with a knife, right above where the soil line will be.
"You do it just once," he said. "This stops it from growing too high and gives you fruit quickly, although it will be small."
Another tip: Lightly scoring the flesh of green papaya lengthwise, from tip to tip in three lines, will induce ripening.
The plant's soft trunk, full of water and without bark, should be about 2 inches in diameter. The papaya plant (Carica papaya) looks like a tree but is actually an oversized herb. It originated in Central America but is well adapted to Southern California as long as it's protected from frost. Younger trees bear more fruit, and aficionados like Fuentes start new plants from saved seeds every year.
You can start plants using seeds from a store-bought papaya. Most likely it will be a Mexican or a Hawaiian variety, and germination can take a month or more.
For a plant that may be flowering already and ready to go in the ground, check out Papaya Tree Nursery. Owner Alex Silber likes a close relative of the common papaya. Babaco (Carica pentagona) is seedless, juicy and more acidic -- closer to a pineapple. Silber said it's one of his favorite fruits.
The plant looks like a traditional papaya, but the fruit hangs down at eye level and lasts for months, making it strikingly ornamental as well as tasty. Like some Mexican papaya plants, babaco can work in a container that's about 24 inches high by 30 inches wide. All the varieties that Silber sells are self-fruiting, so you don't need multiples for pollination.
Papaya plants are heavy feeders. Give them a nitrogen-rich fertilizer such as composted chicken manure, and mulch heavily. They will grow fast and yield fruit in as little as a year.
"Good drainage is key," Silber said, adding that the nursery provides a detailed recipe for adjusting soil, if necessary. "Add powdered gypsum. They tend to be deficient in calcium and can get flower-end rot, like tomatoes.