The babaco is probably a hybrid between Carica stipulata and Carica pubescens that happened naturally. Its native range is probably located in the highlands of central and southern Ecuador. The natives were eating the fruit and cultivating the plant before the Spaniards arrived in the area.
In recent times, babaco has been introduced in several parts of the world. In the 70's, the introduction of babaco in southern California is attributed to Steve Spangler. It is cultivated commercially in New Zealand and grown in greenhouses in Israel and the Arab countries in the Middle East.
The babaco fruit has no seeds inside and is thus a parthenocarpical one. The fruits have a five-sided shape, with a rounded bottom and a pointy apex. They start growing right after the flower blooms and make the fastest progress during the months of October and November.
The maximum size of the fruit is around 12 inches in length and 8 inches thick. Unlike other plants, the first fruits to ripen are the ones located lower on the trunk, followed by the ones that grow higher. The lower fruits are also the heaviest. The fruit is ripen when it becomes yellow, a process that starts with stripes and spots on the sides.
In a few weeks, the entire fruit becomes yellow and can be harvested. The whole fruit is edible, including the thin and delicate skin. It has a unique flavour that is challenging to describe. It is said to have notes of pineapple, papaya and strawberries. The flesh is extremely juicy, with low acidity and sugar content.
The plant itself is small and only reaches about 6 feet in height. It is a low herbaceous shrub with an upright trunk made of soft wood. Like other relatives of the papaya from the Carica family, the trunk is dotted with leaf scars. The thicker the trunk, the strongest and more productive the plant becomes.
Leaves are located on long hollow petioles that originate from the trunk. Their size is average when compared to the one of the tree. They have a palm-like shape and have very visible veins and ribs. Leaves stay on the tree for about 4-6 months before falling during the cold months, when they start to decay one by one.
All of the tree's flowers are female and can usually be found on the top of a long stalk, usually solitary. These pendulous stalks radiate from the axil of every leaf. When the tree enters its growth phase, the flowers appear on the trunk. Thicker shrubs are more productive than thinner ones, and generate a larger amount of flowers.
The easiest way to consume babaco is to eat it raw, like the locals in Ecuador, the plant's place of origin, have done for a long time. The ripe fruit is delicious and very easy to add to one's daily diet. Unlike some fruits, the skin of babaco is also edible, which makes it especially valuable.
It is well-known that many of the useful vitamins and vegetables in fruits are located in the skin. Alternatively, another way to consume babaco in its raw form is to prepare a smoothie or a fresh juice.
Babaco is very rich in vitamin C, a very strong antioxidant that has numerous benefits. Its main role is to boost the immune system and keep it in top shape. As a result, eating babacos often or in combination with other fruits can shield the body from infections and even allergies. Vitamin C is also an excellent cure against flu or cold. The antioxidant qualities of vitamin C make it useful in many other ways.
It protects the body but in particular the skin from the damage caused by free radicals. In parallel, it increases the production of collagen, giving the skin a strong and elastic structure. For these two reasons, eating babaco daily contributes to a youthful look, since it provides an important quantity of vitamin C. Collagen synthesis stimulated by vitamin C also plays a crucial role in faster healing of wounds and scars.
For a healthy diet, you need to eat fruits every day. However, this could be a problem if you want to lose weight. Many fruits are very sweet and have a high sugar content. Babaco is ideal because it only contains about 21 calories in a portion of 100 grams.
It is an excellent choice for a quick snack between the main meals, when a few slices of babaco can replenish both your stomach and provide a much-needed boost of vitamins and minerals. In fact, while its sugar content is low, babaco is a major source of vitamins A and C.
The skin of babaco has a high concentration of the very useful enzyme papain. This compound is crucial in the easy digestion of proteins and fats and an excellent addition to the daily intake of nutrients.
Studies have proven that babaco is the best fruit source of papain in the world. Even if the enzyme's name comes from papaya, which makes many people think that papaya is the best choice as a source for it, babaco is in fact much richer in this substance. The digestive system needs papain to be more effective, so eating this fruit often ensures a smooth and easy process of digestion.
Babaco is also a major source of dietary fibers, like most vegetables and fruits. Fibers add bulk to the stool and play an important role in a balanced and regular bowel transit. This provides a number of health benefits. The most important one is preventing constipation, and all the unpleasant effects that come with it. Regular bowel movement also stops the development of colorectal cancer, so a daily intake of fibers is recommended.
Among other useful minerals and compounds, babaco is rich in calcium. This is the building block of our bones, nails and teeth. Providing the body with enough calcium strengthens the bones and lowers their chance of breaking. Women need more calcium than men to prevent osteoporosis, a disease that weakens their bones, in particular when they age.
Another important antioxidant compound in babaco is beta carotene. As a rule of thumb, beta carotene is present in all fruits that have bright and attractive colours. Its main role is to protect the light-sensitive cells at the back of your eyeballs, from the destructive effects of free radicals. This makes it essential for healthy eyesight and a clear vision.
The easiest and healthiest way to eat babaco is in its raw form. The fruit has no seeds, which makes it very easy to consume when ripe, especially since the skin is edible as well. A bit of sugar can be added since it is not naturally very sweet.
There are several other ways to eat it raw: one of them is to prepare it as a drink mixed with some honey or sugar in a blender. Adding yoghurt, ice cream or milk can transform this drink into a shake. It can also be mixed in a salad with other fruits. Babaco can be prepared as a pie or a preserve.
Babacos are tropical plants that require a warm climate. A sunny location, shielded from winds, is ideal. It will still develop and produce fruits even if planted in a shady spot. The small size of the plant makes it easy to place in any place of a garden. It looks very interesting and exotic in gardens because the fruit grows vertically and the leaves are large and green.
Despite its tropical origins, babaco shrubs can actually survive frost, even if it sometimes hurts their development. A clever idea is to plant them in protected spots in the garden or near the walls of a building.
If planted in the open, babacos can be shielded by building a frame around them and placing plastic sheets on it. However, the plant's small size makes it ideal for cultivation in pots, which can be moved indoors during the winter. Plants that are affected by frost sometimes develop root rot, with fatal consequences.
While it grows, babaco needs plenty of water, so irrigation is mandatory if rainfall is not enough. However, it requires dry soils during the winter, although this is not a must like in the case of papaya. The best soil for babaco needs to be fertile, well-drained and with a light texture. It cannot grow in salty soils or in the presence of salty water, like all plants from the papaya family.
The babaco shrub cannot propagate without human help, since it never develops any seeds. The entire process of asexual propagation takes about 15 months. The best method is to cut the whole trunk in a diagonal direction about 1 foot from the roots, after the fruiting phase of the plant.
This should be sliced into cuttings on about 1 foot in length, placed in a fungicide solution. The rooting part has to be dipped in a rooting hormone and then inserted into a soil with good drainage and low on water. Sandy soils work best for this purpose. As soon as they start developing leaves and roots, they can be removed and planted in their final spots, at a depth of around 8 inches. After a bit more than one year, the first fruits will start growing.
When ripe, the babaco fruit is very fragile and must be handled with care. It can easily be removed by cutting the stalk with a knife or clipper. If one isn't available, the fruit can be picked by hand by lifting it and pulling in the opposite direction from its stalk. For fresh consumption at home, it can be picked when it turns fully yellow, although when too ripe it can fall from the shrub and get damaged.
For commercial harvesting, babacos are picked at the first hint of yellow. They are extremely valuable for transport, since they can be preserved for a really long time.
Even damaged babacos are very resilient, and the damage from the bruised areas does not spread to the rest of the fruit. If stored in a cold place, at an optimum temperature of around 40°F, babaco can last for months. Even on a normal supermarket shelf it will keep very well, and normally lasts about one month without any special conditions.