(Lessons from) a Volunteer Papaya Tree

By: Jo Anne V. Coruña

This is the final part of former Staff member Jo Anne’s “Ecology of Changemaking” series. Read the first part here and the second part here.

Now that I’ve hopefully convinced you about the necessity of practicing an ecology of changemaking, let’s get back to the main question:

How might we collaborate with nature in making lasting positive change?

Permaculture offers a straightforward answer: The three ethics and the 12 principles.

The three ethics of permaculture are:

  1. Earth Care — designing our lives to be regenerative, not just sustaining the state of our planet but actually contributing to its betterment;
  2. People Care — caring for one’s self and others, and reflecting such care in our daily actions;
  3. Fair Share — acknowledging the necessary limits to what we consume, in accordance with the first two ethics, as well as sharing the abundance we may have with those around us.

We can look at these Permaculture Ethics as guiding ideas that can help us direct our lives a certain way. Primarily rooted in indigenous cultures that the co-originators of Permaculture learned extensively from, these ethics shine the light on the paths we can take to more meaningful and abundant ecological lives.

These ethics are more practically applied through the 12 Permaculture Principles. I’ve explained all 12 principles in the primer in the resources section of my website, but I’m happy to delve into several of them as we look at this fallen Papaya tree in our food forest.

For starters, I spotted this volunteer Papaya Tree last year when it was already about two feet tall. It was right in the middle of several Banana plants that we didn’t plant, in an area I haven’t really been frequenting. I decided to explore there one day, and I was very excited to have discovered it. I immediately dreamed of the yummy Papaya fruits I’ll be harvesting in a few months. However, the Papaya fruits never did come, and after researching online, I learned about the difference between male, female, and hermaphrodite Papaya trees and how to tell by their flowers. I examined the flowers on this volunteer tree and saw that they were male, which means that it wouldn’t bear fruit. [Principle 1: Observe and Interact]

A little bit disappointed, I basically left the tree alone and just let it grow. I didn’t have plans for the area where it was and letting it grow meant allowing it to harvest the sun’s energy and convert it into biomass. Eventually, it grew to about 12–15 feet tall, towering over the Banana plants around it. [Principle 2: Catch and Store Energy]

The next time the Papaya tree caught my attention was when I heard a familiar bird call coming from where it was — I looked and there on a petiole (leaf stem) was a sunbird! A personal favorite. The tree then had some long leaf stalks that were dying and drying, and I began to hope for sunbirds making a nest on these stalks. By letting the male Papaya tree be, a delightful bird species started visiting the forest garden regularly. [Principle 10: Value Diversity + Principle 11: Use Edges and Value the Marginal]

I may not be getting fruits, but I am getting joy, excitement, and a reason to look up and just take a breather, all while smiling from ear to ear. [Principle 3: Obtain a Yield]

A few weeks after the sunbird’s regular visits, I looked up one day and saw… a Papaya fruit! I was so very pleasantly surprised, and of course, started to wait for the fruit — which turned into fruitS — to get bigger and ripen. At around the same time, I learned from someone I follow on Instagram that you can actually encourage a male Papaya tree to become female by chopping its top off. Plants are just amazing, aren’t they?

Eventually, the fruits became a little bit bigger but they never did turn yellow or orange. After one particularly rainy evening, I went to the forest garden and saw that the Papaya tree has fallen over onto our Bamboo strip, as illustrated. I then harvested the unripe fruits, thinking about atchara, but ultimately experimenting in the kitchen making Ginisang Papaya loosely based on this recipe, because I did not have the other ingredients for pickling. [Principle 12: Creatively Use and Respond to Change]

I put the peels in our kitchen scraps bin for composting, and soaked the seeds for sowing and saving. At this point, I’d like to mention that I was surprised to find seemingly viable seeds inside these “unripe” Papayas — unripe Papayas usually have white seeds inside. So now I am wondering if the volunteer Papaya tree is a different kind, perhaps this true Green Papaya? [Principle 6: Produce No Waste + Principle 2: Catch and Store Energy]

I was almost going to chuck the seeds into the kitchen scraps bin, but realized that it might be an interesting species to grow. We shall sow and see! [Principle 4: Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback + Principle 10: Value Diversity]

Lastly, I just learned that Papaya seeds can also be used as a black pepper substitute. Stacking functions — which basically means every element in a system having multiple functions — is a key principle in permaculture. With edible leaves, fruits, and seeds, as well as being a possible nesting site for sunbirds, this Papaya tree that I didn’t even plant has been such a wonderful addition to our forest garden’s ecosystem. [Principle 8: Integrate rather than Segregate]

Before we end, I can’t help but point out the pattern on the trunk of this tree from the petioles that have fallen. This shows how the tree has grown its leaf stems to maximize capturing sunlight. This pattern and the reasoning behind it can guide us, too, when designing our edible gardens as well as our social initiatives. [Principle 7: Design from Patterns to Details]

Through the example of this volunteer Papaya tree, we can see how a single element, considered from different angles, can serve many purposes and have impactful contributions that lead to a more robust ecological system. I encourage you to look through the principles I mentioned above, and consider your own changemaking work. Where and how can you apply these principles to make more robust, impactful, and regenerative change?

About the Author

Jo Anne is a writer, visual artist, and permaculture designer & practitioner. Before art and permaculture, she was a member of the Ashoka Philippines team, searching for social innovators in the Visayas. She is currently growing a food forest garden in Bacolod, Philippines, with her husband and two kids. Jo Anne shares her permaculture field notes and illustrated plant files on amidstthegreen.org.

Featuring impact stories from the Philippine community of Ashoka, the world’s largest network of social innovators.

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