Walk down the fruit aisle at your grocery store. Almost all of the fruits you'll see -- apples, peaches, pears, plums, citrus, figs, cherries, mangoes -- come from trees native to other continents that traders and settlers brought here centuries ago. One delicious tree fruit you won't see is native to the entire eastern United States. The pawpaw.
During a recent visit to West Virginia to visit my brother and his wife, Grumpy found himself biking down a wooded trail next to the old C&O Canal. I began noticing groups of small trees 15-25 feet high with large leaves that had begun turning yellow. "Pawpaws!" I bellowed with uncontrollable joy. "Anybody here besides me ever eaten a pawpaw?"
Backwoods folks in Appalachia certainly ate pawpaws wherever they could find them. Check out the lyrics of this old song I remember from my childhood:
Pickin’ up paw-paws, puttin’ ‘em in her pockets, Pickin’ up paw-paws, puttin’ ‘em in her pockets, Pickin’ up paw-paws, puttin’ ‘em in her pockets, Way down yonder in the paw-paw patch.
Why have so few people today partaken of this native fruit? Two reasons. First, its thin skin bruises easily, making it difficult to ship. Second, ripe fruits rot within a couple of days unless you freeze them. So one's best chance at eating a pawpaw is to grow a pawpaw tree at home.
Which would be a good idea even if a pawpaw never fruited. In the wild, pawpaw (Asimina triloba) grows in the woods as an understory tree and spreads by root suckers to form thickets or "pawpaw patches." But you can train it to a single trunk as show above. It forms a highly ornamental small tree with a pyramidal to rounded form. Leaves turn banana-yellow in fall. It has no pests that I know of -- not even deer -- and unlike most fruit trees, needs no spraying or special care at all.
Pawpaw flowers are weirdly compelling. About 1-2 inches wide, the reddish-purple blooms consist of three petals and three sepals and hang on short stems just beneath the branches. Their main pollinators? Flies. This means flies are good for at least one thing in this world. Clusters of oval to oblong fruit, 3 to 6 inches long, ripen in fall, turning a greenish-yellow. Since they're roughly the same color as the leaves most of the time, they can be hard to spot, unless you know what to look for.
Why would you want to eat a pawpaw? Because, quite simply, no other fruit boasts its flavor or texture. The taste combines notes of banana, mango, pear, and melon. The soft flesh melts in your mouth like egg custard. (You do need to spit out the large, brown seeds, though.) Besides eating pawpaws fresh, you can puree the flesh and add it to all sorts of things -- bread, shakes, smoothees, ice cream, cakes, and pies. Pawpaws are high in potassium and anti-oxidants too.
How To Grow As I said before, pawpaws aren't that fussy. Plant them in fertile, well-drained soil that contains plenty of organic matter. They like full shade or half-sun, half-shade. Planting two different named selections, such as 'Mango' and 'Taylor,' produces better crops and tastier fruit. You can order trees online from Just Fruits and Exotics. You can even order fresh pawpaws right now from Earthly Delights.
Just don't leave them in your pockets.