Carica Papaya and its wild relatives of Mesoamerica

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Carica papaya (Caricaceae) (general information, uses, facts)

Carica papaya (the only species in this genus) is the most popular species of the Caricaceae family and is widely distributed throughout the tropical and warmer subtropical areas of the world. It is also the economically most important species in this family, with an annual production of around 10 million tons. What is appreciate of this plant is not only its delicious and nutritive fruits, but also the enzyme papain that contains, which is extensively used in medicines, as meat tenderizer, for softening textiles, silk, and leather, and in beer production. Several other of the Caricaceae species also have edible fruits and produce papain. For example, Vasconcellea pubescens, and Jacaratia spinosa show promising characteristics for further economic exploitation and development of new crops (Villegas, 2020 & Carvalho, 2013)

Origin and distribution

According to Villegas (2020) the genus Carica L. is indigenous to tropical America and the papaya must have originated from natural hybridization involving Carica peltata Hook. & Arn. From tropical America it was brought to the Caribbean and South-East Asia during the Spanish exploration in the 16th Century. Today can be found all around the world.

The closest relatives of papaya in Mesoamerica

It was thought for a long time that the Vasconcellea species (the Andean mountain papayas) were the closest relatives of Carica papaya, but with later phylogeny studies determined a large genetic distance between Carica and Vasconcellea. Now we know that Vasconcellea is the genus with the highest number of species in the Caricaceae family with 20 species and one formally named hybrid. Most of them are found in the northern Andes, making this region the center of species diversity of this family (Carvalho, 2013).

Carvalho (2013) in his DNA sequence-based study found out that that the closest relatives of papaya are four dioecious species distributed only in Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador:

  • Horovitzia cnidoscoloides
  • Jarilla heterophylla
  • Jarilla caudate
  • Jarilla chocola

Horovitzia cnidoscoloides, the only species within the genus, is a small tree, completely covered by stinging hairs, endemic to cloud forests in Sierra de Juarez, Oaxaca in southern Mexico. Jarilla heterophylla and Jarilla caudata occur together in central Mexico, they are similar to each other, but can readily be distinguished by fruit and flower sizes. Jarilla chocola is more widely distributed along the Pacific Coast from northern Mexico to Guatemala and El Salvador. It is distinctive in being an erect herb and having fruits that are pink with five longitudinal wings. The three species of the Jarilla genus are used locally as food and medicine, the tubers and fruits produce milky latex, and proteinase activity of a papain-like enzyme has been reported for Jarilla chocola. They are often found in native markets.

Carica Papaya

Did the Maya domesticate Carica papaya?

The Mayan culture is highly recognized by its sophisticated agriculture systems and the variety of plants they domesticated, but we are not 100% sure that the papaya domestication initiated here, however, many authors attribute Central American as the center where this took place.

In words of Carvalho (2013) “The resulting absence of fossil and archeological records of Caricaceae makes it difficult to infer the place of origin and domestication of this important crop. Although some authors in the past suggested a South American origin, nowadays Central America is considered the center of origin and domestication of Carica papaya. The first to suggest this was Alphonse De Candolle in 1883, and the father of modern research into crop origin, Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov in his "Origin and Geography of Cultivated Plants", also preferred a Central American domestication, perhaps by the Mayas, as opposed to domestication by the Incas in the Andean region.”

Wild relatives of Papaya and where to find them in Guatemala

Fieldwork over the past 20 years has shown that populations of the wild form of papaya occurs only in Mesoamerica from southern Mexico to Costa Rica and this support the idea that this was the place of origin of Carica papaya.

The registered species of Papaya relatives for Mexico and Central America are:

  • Jarilla (3 species)
  • Horovitzia cnidoscoloides
  • Carica papaya (wild form)
  • Vasconcellea (2 species)
  • Jacaratia (3 species)

We prepared a list of the ones you can find in Guatemala and in which department

Photo Name Common name Where to find?
Carica PapayaCarica Papaya
Photograph by: O. M. Montiel
Jacaratia mexicana Bonete, papaya de monte, kumche Petén
Carica PapayaCarica Papaya
Photography by: Alexis Hernández & José Luis Gomez
Jacaratia dolichaula Ceiba papaya, pochote, barrilillo Petén, Alta Verapaz (probably Chisec or Coban)
Carica Papaya
Photography by: Daniel Quini
Jacaratia spinosa Papayón There are records in Nicaragua, Panamá and Mexico, so it could be found in Guatemala too. However, other sources mention that it is endemic to Costa Rica and South America.
Carica PapayaCarica Papaya
Photography by: Berry Rice & Patricia Amperio
Jarilla chocola Talguento, chocola Jutiapa.
Carica Papaya
A. Epitype of Mocinna heterophylla La Llave (F.A. Carvalho 2240 M) B. Habit C. Male inflorescence D. Staminate flower. E. Pistillate flower F. Fruits G. Ovary unilocular and seeds H. Tuber. By: Fernanda Antunes Carvalho
Jarilla caudata Granadina -
Carica PapayaCarica Papaya
A. Epitype of Mocinna heterophylla La Llave var. sesseana Ramírez (F.A. Carvalho 2239 M) B. Female infl orescence (unifl ora). C. Female flower showing the short appendages at the base of the ovary D-E. Fruits and seeds F male infl orescence G-H. Staminate flowers. By: Fernanda Antunes Carvalho
Jarilla heterophylla Granadilla Jutiapa. Municipios de Moyuta y Morales
Carica Papaya
Photography by: Ronaldo López
Vasconcellea cauliflora A. D. C. - Alta Verapaz (probably Cahabón), Izabal (probably Puerto Barrios), Petén


Cited literature and references for further research

  • ANTUNES-Carvalho, Fernanda and Susanne S. RENNE
  • 2013
  • Correct names for some of the closest relatives of Carica papaya: A review of the Mexican/ Guatemalan genera Jarilla and Horovitzia. PhytoKeys 29: 63–74.
  • ANTUNES-Carvalho, Fernanda
  • 2015
  • Molecular Phylogeny, Biogeography and an e-Monograph of the Papaya Family (Caricaceae) as an Example of Taxonomy in the Electronic Age. Springer, 147 pages.

    Available Online:

PDF, Articles, Books on Jacaratia mexicana

  • ARIAS, Dulce M., ALBARRÁN-Lara, Ana L., GONZÁLEZ-Rodríguez, Antonio, PEÑALOZA-Ramírez, Juan, DORADO, Oscar and Esaú LEYVA
  • 2011
  • Genetic diversity and structure of wild populations of the tropical dry forest tree Jacaratia mexicana (Brassicales: Caricaceae) at a local scale in Mexico. Rev. Biol. Trop. Vol. 60 (1): 1-10

    Available Online:

PDF, Articles, Books on Jarilla chocola

  • WILLINGHAM, B. C. and George A. WHITE
  • 1976
  • Agronomic Evaluation of Prospective New Crop Species. V. Jarilla chocola: A Proteinase Source. Vol. 30, No. 3, pp. 189-192

    Available Online:

Suggested web pages with photos and information on Wild relatives to papaya
Information about Jarilla species
Vasconcellea species information
Jacaratia species informations


First update June, 2021
Written by Vivian Hurtado, FLAAR Mesoamerica

PNYNN and Livingston reports

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