By Barry Glick
Well it took millions of years, but they're finally here. Who??, What?? PAWPAWS thats what.
Once just the subject of a traditional childrens folk song and the reminiscings of old timers who remember the 30 or so cultivars popular just after the turn of the century, Pawpaws are rapidly gaining a place in todays garden and backyard orchard.
And deservedly so. Consider an easy to grow, hardy to zone 5, at least, ornamental tree with a tropical appearance, interesting flowers up to two inches across, delicious fruit that tastes like a cross between bananas and vanilla custard, aaaaand a vitamin content that rivals citrus all wrapped up in one package-WOW. Thats Asimina triloba, the PAWPAW.
But wait..... there's more. If you want to know why I'm so enraptured by this tree, read on......
My first encounter with this wonderful plant was in the Chadds Ford PA garden of Dr. Darrell Apps. Darrell is known worldwide for his fantastic Hemerocalis (Daylily) introductions. He is also an extraordinary plantsman with limited garden space at the time, so his grant of space to a particular tree was my first clue. I was visiting his garden on a crisp, clear Autumn day. You know those kind of days when the sky is so blue that its almost black, when 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 "hitting the books" 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And now for a little history, One of first recorded historical references dates back to a De Soto expedition of 1540. Thats De Soto the explorer, not the car. He wrote of Native Americans cultivating the Pawpaw and introducing 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 the century, new interest abounded. Many people lived on Pawpaws during the great depression, but after WW II, imported fruit became easily obtainable and interest in Pawpaws waned. That was until 1988. Enter West Virginia Native, Neal Peterson. Neal, justly refered to as the foremost Pawpaw expert in the Universe, founded the Pawpaw Foundation.
The PPF started as a one man crusade to enlighten the masses to the virtues of this unknown fruit. The foundation now has over 300 members in almost every state of the US 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 just one of the many other 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 at Kentucky State University at Frankfort. There, Dr. Desmond Layne has picked up Pawpaw research where Dr. M Brett Callaway left off. The University has recently received a grant to become a USDA Germplasm storage site and will be hosting the second annual Pawpaw Conference October 10-12, 1996. All are welcome. Dr. Layne is also developing a KSU web site on the Internet that will be the Pawpaw Home Page. It will be a vast database and include color photos, extension/research articles, recipes etc. In the meantime, if you are online and would like more info on Pawpaws, the Pawpaw fact sheets are available at: http://newcrop.hort.purdue.edu/hort/newcrops/Crops/CropFactSheets/pawpaw.html
and Pawpaws info can also be found at the California Rare fruit Growers Home Page:
BTW, did I tell you that the Pawpaw is the largest native fruit in North America????
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. The latter of which is becoming available at better 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 will succeed and they will prosper and reward you 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.
If all of these attributes weren't enough, research is underway to isolate compounds from the twigs that have been shown to have promising benefits in cancer therapy. Certain compounds from the Pawpaw are also being tested as organic pesticides. So far one extract kills pests such as harmful nematodes, tobacco horn worms, bean beetles, potato bugs and cabbage loopers.
OK, so you have these great looking tropical trees growing in your backyard with buckets of fruit on them. What now? You can tell that Pawpaws are ripe with a gentle squeeze. They also take on a very sweet fragrance as they ripen. 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. Its kind of 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 it in 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. mmmmm
For many more recipes and pawpaw nutritional information, contact Dr. Layne below and ask for a copy of his recent Extension Publication entitled "Cooking with Pawpaws".
If you're ready to grow Pawpaws, I suggest that you join the Pawpaw Foundation. In addition to keeping you informed about new developments in the culture of Pawpaws, you will be provided with resources for purchasing trees and networking with the experts in the field.
PO Box 23467
Washington DC 20026
North American Fruit Explorers
Rt 1 Box 94
Chapin IL 62628
Dr. Desmond Layne
KSU 129 Atwood arch
400 E Main
Frankfort KY 40601-0091