Hello Fellow Readers,
As I write its President’s day honoring George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Some states combine remembrance of Thomas Jefferson as well who was born in April. Which brings to mind the Pawpaw tree most have never heard of. Jefferson planted a grove of them on his Monticello estate in Virginia. And, journals from the Lewis and Clark Expedition recorded pawpaw fruit was enjoyed and counted on when provisions were scarce.Asimina triloba has other common names such as Custard Apple, Hillbilly Mango, and Poor Man’s Banana. Though there’s nothing poor about the nutrients it provides. Rich in vitamin A and C, magnesium, zinc, iron, and potassium, the name Pawpaw is a derivative of papaya as the fruit has some resemblance. The berry starts greenish-yellow and turns brownish as it matures to six inches. It’s the largest fruit indigenous to the United States, other than gourds. According to Michael Dirr, the guru of woody plants, it has a banana texture but tastes like a combination of pear and banana. Others say it tastes like vanilla custard with a bit of citrus. It’s eaten raw or used in baked goods. Stay clear of the seeds though as they are thought to be poisonous.
Pawpaw is native to the eastern United States to Canada, zones 5 to 8, and grow in colonies creating a tropical appearance. It can be found in east Texas and Arkansas and as far west as Nebraska and as far south as Florida. They’re a fast-growing small tree that grows to thirty-five feet. Some nurseries sell them, though most don’t know about them. The fruit is unfamiliar too as they have a short shelf life, two or three days or a week if chilled, and therefore are not often seen at grocers. Not a problem for home growers though as you can freeze the flesh and use it in smoothies or ice-cream. Pick them just as they ripen before they fall from the tree as they quickly ferment to an astringent taste.
They prefer part sun, say five hours a day, though Dirr writes they do well in full sun too in moist slightly acidic soil. They often grow along woodland edges. Their purplish maroon flowers come in early to mid-May in these parts (zone 5b-6) just before or about when their leaves emerge. Some say the flowers smell like rotten meat; hopefully only when you stick your nose in it. Besides they can’t be that bad as butterflies adore them. Their foliage is beefy much like my favored Bottlebrush Buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) with large finger-like leaves that fan out from the center. They too turn brilliant yellow in the fall and, drum roll please, they are “A” in deer resistance per Rutgers University just like Bottlebrush Buckeye.
I love the idea of adding a few Pawpaw right next to our Buckeyes, though I’ve heard our resident raccoons may beat us to the fruit. That’s okay. I’ll share a few pawpaws with the furry four-pawed fellows. Garden Dilemmas? AskMaryStone@gmail.com
Click through to a previous column on Jefferson’s Monticello – a lab for plants