The papaya has been around for centuries. Thought to have originated in Mexico or Central America, the soft-fleshed fruit made it’s way to Europe, Southeast Asia and India. Thanks to its hardy seeds, papaya spread easily throughout the tropics, and has become naturalized in many tropical and subtropical regions, especially those with abundant water and fertile soils. The well-traveled papaya picked up different monikers during its journey around the globe: “Pawpaw” in Europe, “Fruta Bomba” in Cuba and “Papaye” in France.
When Captain Cook discovered Hawaii in 1778, he purportedly presented papaya seeds from Central America to an influential warrior who would later rule the Islands of Hawaii as Kamehameha the Great. The yellow-fleshed fruit quickly became “the fruit of royalty” and has been grown in back yards and commercial farms across the Islands ever since.
Today, Hawaii is the largest producer of papaya in the United States.
Hawaii papaya industry is a key contributor to the state’s economy and has had a profound impact on local agriculture and on the livelihood of its people. But this successful industry came close to collapse in 1992 when the Papaya ringspot virus (PRSV) infected papaya crops in Puna on Hawaii Island, the heart of papaya production. Within a few years, the virus had devastated the industry, which saw papaya production plummet by 50%.