A walk through the fruit section at the grocery store is a cornucopia of colors, shapes and flavors. But no matter the season, or how large the range is, there is one fruit you are highly unlikely to find – pawpaw. The reason is a simple one, and also one that explains just why certain fruits are available in abundance, and others are rare and expensive. And what is that reason? Storage life. A lot of science goes into bringing us fresh fruit every day of the year, with everything from bananas to apples receiving different, often complex treatments to make sure they are ripe when you get them. Some fruits, though, stubbornly defy the science, and simply can’t be stored, so they are rare and, like the pawpaw, almost never seen, outside of the occasional farmer’s market.
If you have holidayed in the Caribbean, Hawaii, or any place in the Tropics, you will have seen all sorts of exotic and unusual fruits, from papaya to durian, and probably enjoyed their extraordinary flavors, which are rich, perfumed, and often blend several of the more familiar tastes. These make it to our stores from time to time, but always at premium prices and inferior quality. These are rare treats, but what if you could enjoy flavors like these, right out of your own yard? Perhaps a combination of pineapple, mango and banana, but with enormous depth and richness? Impossible? No, it isn’t – not if you plant a Pawpaw Tree.
Botanists call pawpaw Asimina triloba, and it’s one of 13 species of Asimina found in North America. The others hang on only in the warmest parts of the country, sticking to Florida and the coastal edges of Alabama. They are related to tropical fruits like soursop and custard apple, but not to another fruit sometimes called ‘pawpaw’, which is the papaya, Carica papaya.
For reasons unknown, the pawpaw ventured north – or more likely remained as the climate cooled – and is found today throughout the east, as far north as Michigan and in zone 5. It was well-known to native Americans, who not only ate the fruit, but used the bark for weaving, and introduced it to the early European explorers and settlers. Today hikers in fall may find it as a treat, and it is also enjoying interest as an alternative crop for small-scale growers.
What is a Pawpaw Tree Like?
The Pawpaw is a small tree, growing in a garden no more than 25 feet tall and 15 feet wide, and can be kept smaller by pruning. The striking leaves are up to a foot long, and turn rusty yellow in fall. Leaves are late to appear in spring, so the flowers come on the bare branches, and these are striking and unusual.
Up to 2 inches across, they have thick purple-pink petals that curl backwards. Sadly they have an unpleasant smell, and are fertilized in the wild by flies and beetles. To set fruit trees must be cross-pollinated, so you need to plant at least two trees. Since these are normally grown from seed, each one is genetically different, so any two will do. In a garden it is worth going out with a fat artist’s brush – one for Chinese brushwork is ideal – and transferring pollen from flowers on one bush to those on another, to be sure of a heavy crop. Those attempting commercial crops have been known to hang roadkill from the trees to attract flies, but you won’t have to go that far at home!
Fruits develop through summer, and ripen in fall, often as late as October. These are long and fat, up to 6 inches long, with a greenish skin. When ripe they become a bit yellowish, but don’t change color dramatically. To see if your fruit is ripe, give it a gentle squeeze. If it gives, the way a fresh peach does, and has a powerful aroma, then its ready to enjoy. The skin will probably be blotchy – that’s a good thing for ripeness.
Fruits only last a few days once ripe, and can’t be stored, but they can be frozen whole. The flesh inside has a similar texture to banana, and several large black seeds are embedded in it. These are easy to remove, and point to the ancient nature of this tree. They are too large to be swallowed whole by any of today’s fruit-eating mammals, who would disperse them over larger areas. It is believed that they probably evolved to be eaten by mammoths and giant sloths, which roamed North America until the end of the last Ice Age, being probably exterminated by a combination of climate change and the first humans who arrived over the land-bridge with Asia.
Fruit of the pawpaw is usually eaten fresh. It was supposedly a favorite dessert of George Washington and was certainly more widely-eaten in the past. To eat fresh, cut in half lengthways and scoop out the flesh, discarding the seeds – or keeping them to grow more trees. It also makes delicious ice-cream, and can be used in baking pies, cakes and making custards. Also, try substituting it for banana is your favorite recipes. Jams and jellies are also a possibility. Since the papaya is called ‘pawpaw’ in several countries, including Australia, be careful when looking for recipes that it isn’t a papaya recipe – although it may be possible to substitute.
Growing a Pawpaw Tree
The Pawpaw is a relatively easy tree to grow. First, as mentioned, you need two, and unlike other fruit trees they are quite shade tolerant, growing even in full shade, although cropping best in full sun or light shade. Trees recently planted in full sun can benefit from some shade – improvise a panel of burlap to give afternoon shade in the first couple of summers. A rich, moist, but well-drained soil is best, and preferably not alkaline – tolerance of acidic soils is good. After a few years of care trees are quite drought tolerant in summer, but give the best crop if they aren’t left very dry for too long. No special pruning is needed, and apart from doing some hand pollinating when you are first trying to coax a crop, these is an easy tree that can be used as an ornamental in any garden. It isn’t eaten by deer and appears to have no noticeable pest or disease problems – an all-round easy tree that just about anyone could grow. Since most trees are grown from seed, and will be perhaps 2 or 3 years old when you plant them, it could be 3 to 5 years before you harvest your first crop – which is pretty much on a par with regular fruit trees.
The Future of the Pawpaw Tree
Growing Pawpaw as a crop has caught on a little with organic growers, attracted to a fruit that doesn’t need elaborate pest control. So far there is little work being done to develop it, and Kentucky State University has the only permanent program promoting it, and developing improved varieties. Although there are in theory several superior, named forms, with larger, better-quality fruit, in practice these are going to be difficult to find as young trees. Since this tree is grown from seed, and cuttings are rarely successful, grafting is necessary to grow these named varieties. Remember too that cross-pollination from a plant that is genetically different is needed, so it will be necessary to plant at least two different named varieties to achieve that.
Still, the future of the Pawpaw tree looks bright, and it could soon be a garden-staple, along with the apple, peach or cherry tree.