Inside The New York Botanical Garden

What’s in a Plant Name? – Papaya

Posted in Around the Garden on October 2 2018, by Katherine Wagner-Reiss

Katherine Wagner-Reiss has her certificate in botany from NYBG and has been a tour guide there for three years.

PapayaGeorgia O’Keeffe: Visions of Hawai‘i features a painting titled Papaya Tree, ‘IAO Valley, Maui. Historically, this is a particularly interesting painting because O’Keeffe submitted it to The Hawaiian Pineapple Company (later Dole) for use in their advertisements, but it was rejected because a major competitor of theirs sold papayas! It is the only painting of a tree form in the exhibition, but botanically speaking, papayas are not trees because they lack a woody trunk; they are large herbaceous perennials. Nearly all of the plant species in O’Keeffe’s Hawaiian paintings can be found growing in the Haupt Conservatory. You will find the live papaya by the hale, a typical Hawaiian structure used for social gatherings.

Another interesting aspect of the Conservatory display is that the plants are divided into those native to Hawai‘i, those brought to Hawai‘i by the Polynesians about 1500 years ago (known as canoe plants), and those introduced after Captain Cook’s landing in 1778 (post-contact plants). Carica papaya is a post-contact plant, native to Central and South America, and introduced to Hawai‘i soon after Captain Cook’s landing, as a dioecious plant with male and female specimens. In 1911 a gynodioecious solo papaya, better for commercial use, was introduced from the Caribbean. Papayas are now naturalized in Hawai‘i.

O’Keeffe initially labeled this painting as a papaw. Of course, common names can be confusing because, while some people call papaya “pawpaw,” most people are thinking of the fruit of Asimina triloba—a large shrub also known as the pawpaw.

Carica is derived from the Greek for a kind of fig, because of the fig-like leaves. The specific epithet “papaya” was possibly derived from the Caribbean word for this fruit. The family is Caricaceae.

If you want to see a papaya after the Georgia O’Keeffe show departs on October 28, Carica papaya ‘Thai Red’ can be found growing in the lowland rain forest house of the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory.


Sue said:

You’ve done it again, Katherine. Taught us some new and interesting things about Georgia’s paintings, and the classification of the three types of plants in Hawaii.
Please keep up your study and research!

Johanna DeCourcy said:

Interesting! Let’s have more Plant Talk pieces from Katherine.