“Pawpaws – The Forgotton Fruit©”
© Eddie Rhoades
“Picking up pawpaws put ’em in a basket, way down yonder in the pawpaw patch.” Does this little tune sound familiar to you? Many people have heard that song but have only a vague notion of what a pawpaw is. First of all, it is the largest fruit native to North America. It is such a part of our national lore that creeks, islands and towns in several states are named after the pawpaw. It is in the Annonaceae family of which the cherimoya is a tropical cousin. The botanical name is Asimina triloba. Triloba describes the maroon flower which has three petals. Fruit can be single or in clusters.
Several years ago, I was on a tour with a group from NAFEX (North American Fruit Explorers, www.nafex.org ) when the conversation turned to pawpaws. I mentioned that although I was a native Southerner, I had never even seen a pawpaw much less tasted one. A fellow named Crafton Clift said, “Well I can fix that,” and took down my name and address. A few days later a package arrived from Tennessee with four ripe pawpaws inside. The outer skin was not very attractive, but that aroma! That luscious taste! I offered some to my wife but she didn’t really care for it. Great, more for me.
Some of the common names for pawpaw are custard apple and Michigan banana.
So this gives you an idea of its taste and texture, and even to its hardiness range. It grows from the Atlantic coast westward to Oklahoma and north as far as New York. The outer skin can be green, yellow green, brown or almost black. Inside, the creamy pulp which surrounds large dark seeds can be white, yellow or peach colored. This pulp is rich, nutritious and very filling. It is high in unsaturated fats, proteins, carbohydrates, and very high in amino acids.
A fellow Master Gardener and naturalist, Hal Massie in my home town of Austell, GA, has a grove of twenty or more pawpaws along a creek bank in the woods at the back of his property. He has lived there a couple of years, and these trees have never borne fruit. Maybe it’s because pawpaws are stoloniferous and will form a colony, all identical to the parent, so there’s no genetic diversity-no cross pollination. Or, it could be that as an understory tree, they are simply getting too much shade. Looks like I can’t count on my friend for any pawpaw fruit.
I had already planted the seeds of the fruit I got from Crafton Clift, but they are notoriously slow to germinate, and then it would be several more years before they came into bearing. So what could I do in the meantime for pawpaws to eat? I got out my NAFEX membership roster, looked under Georgia, and found Ken Stalcup not a mile from my house. A quick phone call and “yes” he had pawpaws and “no” he wouldn’t let me pay for them, I could come and get all I wanted. Ken’s tree was about the size of a dogwood and was growing out in full sun. It had these large, droopy, deciduous leaves and was loaded with pawpaws. Pretty soon I was too.
Back at home, I began to wonder why such a delicious fruit that was part of our heritage had fallen by the wayside, I suppose it is because the fruits all ripen at once and are highly perishable. You can only store them for a week or two in the refrigerator. You’ll probably never see it in the stores because it is too soft to ship, therefore it has little commercial value.
However, it does seem strange that Japan and Italy both have commercial plantings, but America, where pawpaw is native, has none.
Pawpaw plants deserve a place in the garden. They don’t take up that much space, and they are very practical plants-something you can eat. You won’t have to spray the fruit or the trees as they are virtually pest-free, although they are host plants for the Zebra swallow-tail butterfly. If you or your children or grandchildren don’t get to the fruit, then the wildlife will. In fact, wildlife are part of the natural seed distribution program.
If you try to plant a species pawpaw from the wild, you may not have much luck. First of all, they are hard to transplant because of the lack of root hairs. Secondly, if the plant does live it may never bear or it may develop inferior fruit. Your best bet is to order seed from select plants.
If you decide to grow a pawpaw in a container, be sure to use a deep one as the plant has a long tap root. Better still would be to purchase a named cultivar. This would be a grafted plant that will assure you of fruit with superior size and taste. Some of the better cultivars include ‘Wells’, the winner of a national contest (conducted in 1990 by Brett Callaway) with a 400 gram fruit grown in Salem, Indiana; ‘Sunflower’ with 5- inch, oval leaves and 250 gram fruit that are thick and sweet; and ‘Overleese’ with 350 gram oval to round fruit with superior flavor. Other good selections are:
‘Mango’, ‘Mary Foos Johnson’, ‘Triple Cross’, ‘Davis’ and ‘Wilson’.
Craig Allen, a grower in Watkinsville, GA, believes strongly that the pawpaw is an excellent native plant that deserves better publicity. You can’t just saunter into your local nursery and buy a named pawpaw. With that in mind, I purchased the seed, and Allen germinated over a hundred pawpaw seedlings, which we planned to give away at the 12th annual Native Plant Conference at Cullowhee, NC. This benevolent act fell through when a record heat wave hit, and the plants all died. The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray. It wasn’t a total disaster as I did give my slide presentation to over 400 attendees and passed out literature for the Pawpaw Foundation. It created a lot of excitement and made me feel proud to be promoting the humble pawpaw.
4452 Old Bucking ham Road
Powhatan, VA 23139.
Seeds from names varieties.
229 Readville Road
Flemington, NJ 08822
Stratified seed from seedlings of named pawpaws.
20865 Junction Road
Bellvue, MI 49021
391 Butts Road
Morton, WA 98356
PO Box 6
Sibley, LA 71073
Send long SASE
North American Fruit Explorers
Quarterly magazine Pomona has many fruit interest groups, including ones for pawpaw.
Annual dues $8.00
Rt. l, Box 94
Chapin, IL 62628
Kentucky State University
Atwoon Research Facility
Frankfort, KY 40601
Kentucky State University Pawpaw Research Project
Annual dues $15.00.
by Chef Michael Luska
6 egg yolks
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup passion fruit or banana liqueur
1 cup pawpaw puree
1 cup whipping cream
Over a simmering double boiler, combine egg yolks and sugar. Meanwhile heat the liqueur till warm (too hot will cause it to ignite). Add warmed liqueur to egg yolk and sugar mixture. Continue to cook, stirring constantly until thickened. Allow to cool and fold in pawpaw puree. Whip cream into stiff peaks and fold into pawpaw and egg mixture. Serve chilled with shaved chocolate or a fruit garnish of your choice.