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November 24, 1985|BILL SIDNAM

If you enjoy traveling, by all means schedule a journey to the lush highlands of Ecuador to taste an exotic fruit called the babaco papaya--but you don't have to. Nor do you need to look for the babaco in the stores, where it has recently become available. Now, you can grow this fruit, which will tolerate lower temperatures than other papayas, in your own garden.

Though native to the higher, colder elevations of Ecuador, the fruit that appears in local markets has usually been imported from New Zealand. Its shape is more elongated than the better known varieties of papaya. It bears a slight resemblance to a fat banana with ridged sides. When it's sliced crosswise into segments, the pieces are somewhat star-shaped. The fruit is juicy, reminiscent of a ripe Crenshaw melon but with tropical overtones. The flavor is considered by many to be superior to that of other papayas because of the slight acidity of the rich, orange flesh and because the fruit lacks much of the musky flavor associated with most papayas.

Like other papayas, the babaco is not a tree but a large evergreen plant that resembles a small palm. The fruit, which grows in clusters near the top foliage, changes from gree into a rich lemon-yellow color when it ripens. The babaco has more of a dwarf-plant habit than other papayas; it grows to only about eight feet, while other typical papaya plants attain a height of 20 or 25 feet.

One feature of the babaco papaya is its growth capability. It grows so quickly that the plants almost always bear fruit the first year. And if you buy a two-foot plant, it just may bear fruit within six months of being planted.

The babaco will tolerate temperatures down to 28 degrees Fahrenheit, but if temperatures in your area drop much below that, consider growing the plant in a large container or in a half-whiskey barrel; it grows and fruits quite well in containers. Think about putting the container on casters so that, on extremely cold nights, you can move the plant quickly into your garage or into another sheltered space.

The babaco papaya requires a sunny planting site in your garden. The soil must have good drainage because the only problem the babaco is likely to encounter is root rot, which is caused by soggy, cold soil.

Planting time is a good time to add slow-release fertilizer tablets. Products such as Fertipill or Jobe's Tree Spikes provide long-term nutrient release--without burning roots--for new and established plants. At planting time, prop up the plant with a six- or eight-foot redwood stake, even though the young plant won't seem to need the help; eventually, it will tend to be top-heavy.

When the fruit turns yellow and "gives" a little when you press it, it is ripe. That usually occurs in late summer or fall. Don't refrigerate it; store it at room temperature.

Plants for the babaco papaya are not yet easy to locate, but try Pacific Tree Farms, Chula Vista, (619) 422-2400; Exotica Seed Co., Vista, (619) 724-993; or Papaya Tree Nursery, Granada Hills, (818) 363-3680.

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