By Barry Glick
Not long ago, the pawpaw was known only as the subject of a traditional children's folk song, and through the reminiscings of old-timers who recalled the 30 or so cultivars popular just after the turn of the century. But the pawpaw has once again come into the limelight and is quickly reclaiming its place in garden and backyard orchard.
And deservedly so. Consider these attributes: it's easy to grow, it's hardy to zone 5 (at least), it's an ornamental tree with a tropical appearance and it has interesting flowers that are up to two inches across. Then there's the delicious fruit that tastes like a cross between bananas and vanilla custard, and it has a vitamin content that rivals citrus--all this wrapped up in one small package! That's Asimina triloba, the pawpaw.
My first encounter with this wonderful plant was in the Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, garden of Dr. Darrell Apps. Darrell is known worldwide for his fantastic Hemerocalis (daylily) introductions and is an extraordinary plantsman. At the time of my visit, he had only limited garden space, so his granting a place to this particular tree was my first clue that the pawpaw was something special. I was visiting his garden on a crisp, clear autumn day. I noticed a shapely tree with outstanding autumn color. We strolled under the tree and before Darrell could fill me in, I glanced upwards at the banana like clusters of fruit hanging pendulously above. The fruit was just ripening, so Darrell, being his generous self, got a five gallon bucket and vigorously shook the tree--pelting me with fist size fruits weighing over a half pound each. After my beating, we sat down under the tree, peeled back the skins and feasted on one of the most unusual tastes and textures that I have ever experienced. Well.... I was hooked.
When I got home, I immediatly pulled out all of my NAFEX (North American Fruit Explorers) Journals and started to learn more about pawpaws. There were lots of interesting articles and the more I read, the more I wondered why this fruit wasn't more popular with the home gardener and the American fruit consuming public.
And now for a little history. One of first recorded historical references to the pawpaw, which incidentally is the largest native fruit in North America, dates back to De Soto's expedition of 1540. He wrote of Native American's cultivating the pawpaw and later introduced it to the Europeans. In 1736, botanist John Bartram sent some pawpaw specimens back to England. Not much was done with pawpaws during the 1800's, but after the turn of this century, interest swelled. And during the great depression, many people supplemented meager diets with the pawpaw. But after World War II, imported fruit became easily obtainable and interest in pawpaws waned.
That is until 1988. Enter West Virginia Native, Neal Peterson. Neal, justly refered to as the foremost pawpaw expert in the world, foundedthe Pawpaw Foundation (PPF). The PPF started as a one man crusade to enlighten the masses to the virtues of this widely unknown fruit. The Foundation now has over 300 members in almost every state of the U.S. and several foreign countries. Among its many activities, the PPF oversees two orchards at the University of Maryland totaling over 1900 trees. They also lend technical assistance to scientists, horticulturists and geneticists studying pawpaws and give advice to home gardeners who want to grow pawpaws. Making fruits available for research and taste testing is another of the many functions of the group. The PPF also publishes a very informative newsletter which members receive free of charge. Annual dues are only $15.00--what a bargain!
Another mecca of pawpaw research is Kentucky State University at Frankfort. There, Dr. Desmond Layne is continuing the pawpaw research bugun by Dr. M Brett Callaway. The University has recently received a grant to become a USDA germplasm storage site and will be hosting the second annual Pawpaw Conference on October 10-12, 1996. All are welcome. Dr. Layne is also developing a KSU Web site that will provide a Pawpaw Home Page. It will include a vast database of color photos, extension/research articles, recipes, etc. In the meantime, if you are online and would like more info on pawpaws, check out the pawpaw Fact Sheets at Purdue University. Information is also available from the California Rare Fruit Growers Web site.
Taxonomically speaking, the pawpaw is a member of the Annonaceae family. The same family that is home to the tropical fruits soursop, custard apple and the cherimoya--which is becoming available at many grocery stores.
Pawpaw trees are not as difficult to grow as some people may have thought in the past. They can be finicky, but if you follow a few basic rules you are likely to succeed--and be rewarded with bushels of delicious fruit! They prefer a slightly acid soil, pH 5.5-7.0. The soil should be well drained and fertile. If your site is in full sun, you can expect the tree to take on a narrowly pyramidal shape with dense drooping foliage down to the ground level. Grown in the shade, the habit is more of an open branching with few lower limbs and horizontally held leaves. Paw paws are typically small trees, seldom reaching over 25 feet in height. Several trees should be planted as most are self-infertile.
As if it didn't have enough going for it, research is underway to isolate compounds from the pawpaw's twigs which appear to have promising benefits in cancer therapy. Other compounds from the pawpaw are being tested as organic pesticides. One extract has been able to kill pests such as harmful nematodes, tobacco horn worms, bean beetles, potato bugs and cabbage loopers.
Okay, so you have these great looking tropical trees growing in your backyard producing buckets of fruit . What now? You can tell that pawpaws are ripe with a gentle squeeze. They also take on a very sweet fragrance when they've ripened. I like eating the fresh fruit right under the tree, but fruit can also be harvested before it ripens and stored in the fridge for a couple of weeks. The fruit is somewhat perishable, so if you have more than you need and you've loaded up all of your friends and neighbors and you've had your fill of pawpaw bread (substitute it for bananas in your favorite banana bread recipe), just puree what's left the blender and freeze it. Then pull it out on a snowy night in the middle of the winter and voila--its summertime again!
How bout a Pawpaw Pie?
1 cup sugar 1 egg
1/4 tsp salt 1 cup milk
1 1/2 cups pawpaws (peeled & seeded)
Place all of the ingredients into a stew pan and stir together. Cook over medium heat until thickened. Pour into an unbaked pie shell and bake until the crust is done. Top it with whipped cream.
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