Delicious native fruit, ripe for re-discovery

The paw-paw makes an attractive ornamental tree and produces tropical-looking fruit with tasty yellow flesh. Definitely worth the search to sample.

The paw-paw makes an attractive ornamental tree and produces tropical-looking fruit with tasty yellow flesh. Definitely worth the search to sample.

By fall, many of the luscious fruits grown in our region have come and gone. Local strawberries, peaches and melons will remain a sweet memory until next summer. But the paw-paw, a tasty native fruit largely unknown to modern Americans, has just started to ripen. Depending on a paw-paw tree’s variety and location, the fruit will mature as early as August or as late as November.

Officially a berry, the paw-paw The paw-paw makes an attractive ornamental tree and produces tropical-looking fruit with tasty yellow flesh. Definitely worth the search to sample.

measures up to five inches long and can weigh a pound. Resembling a mango, but without the fibers that catch in ones teeth, paw-paws taste like a cross between a banana and a peach. A few shiny black seeds nestle in the custard-like interior of the fruit, which will last up to a week if refrigerated.

So succulent is the paw-paw, as I discovered recently when sampling it for the first time,that the seeds present no drawback. Did anyone complain about watermelon seeds before someone came up with a seedless variety? Remember watermelon seed-spitting contests? I see possibilities for paw-paw seeds.

Why should an Eastern Shore gardener take an interest in cultivating paw-paws? Where can the fruit be found and tasted? (I’ve never seen it in a store or farmers’ market). And what are the pro’s and con’s of growing the venerable plant?

I say “venerable” because long before European settlers came to North America, native Americans loved to eat paw-paws. They also used the tree’s inner bark to weave fabric and made a powder from its seeds to repel head lice.

In 1541, a member of Hernando Desoto’s expedition through southeastern North America praised the fruit for its “excellent taste.” The same explorers gave the plant its modern name, inspired by its resemblance to the tropical papaya. Later, European settlers made jelly from paw-paws.

Indigenous to this continent, paw-paw trees grow as far south as Louisiana, as far north as New York state and the upper shores of Lake Ontario, and as far west as several Midwestern states, as well as eastern Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma.

Not only are paw-paws delicious, they’re extremely nutritious, containing high levels of vitamins A and C, unsaturated fats, proteins and carbohydrates. The fruit has more magnesium, potassium, phosphorus and sulfur than grapes, peaches or apples, according to the University of Kentucky’s Co-operative Extension Service. I could almost live on them, if it weren’t for the fact that eating too much paw-paw can have a laxative effect, as I discovered after overdoing it at a paw-paw event.

In addition, paw-paw twigs and bark contain a natural insecticide and an extract of the plant is used in cancer therapy.

In the wild, paw-paws grow in the woods and river valleys as an under-story tree. They like damp, fertile, slightly acidic soil and sun or shade. The trees are very adaptable. Sometimes they tolerate wet soil, but they are drought-sensitive when grown in the sun and should be irrigated and mulched during droughts. An important note for gardeners: Plant paw-paw seedlings in the shade for the first year because they’re sensitive to ultra-violet light.

For those who worry about trees dropping branches and damaging things, the Kentucky Extension Service says paw-paw branches are break-resistant and the trees pest-free. However, the University of Maryland’s Wye Research and Education Center (WREC) cites borers, leaf-rollers and Japanese bee-tles as pests, while noting that damage to the fruit is “extremely rare.”

More selling points: Paw-paw leaves turn a golden yellow or copper red in fall. The flowers, almost two inches across, appear in spring before the leaves and change color as the days go by, from pale green to brown, then maroon or purple.

The tree usually grows 15 to 20 feet tall and wide, but in ideal conditions can reach 30 or 40 feet, the Kentucky Extension says. As with most fruit trees, grown in sun and good soil, a paw-paw will produce far more fruit than when in shade and poor soil.

The plant makes an attractive ornamental tree. It has a Christmas tree shape when grown in an or-chard or a garden with plenty of space, but tends to be lanky if in the woods, under taller trees.

Like apple trees, paw-paws do not produce true to seed. This means there’s only a 50% chance a seed you find in a fruit will grow into a tree whose paw-paws will be equally tasty. One can always plant a couple of seeds, wait five years or so until they fruit, then … prepare for a surprise! Or one can buy a mail-order cultivar bred especially to produce yummy fruit.

At least 45 paw-paw cultivars exist, bred for the fruit’s taste, color and size. “Convis,” for example, produces paw-paws weighing up to a pound each, while “sunflower” has eight-ounce fruits and is said to be self-fertile. Generally, paw-paw trees are not self-pollinating, so it’s best to plant at least two.

Another disadvantage: Their long, wide leaves and fruit create quite a bit of litter. But one can deal with part of the problem by freezing the pulp and giving away spare paw-paws to friends. The fruit makes a delicious sugar-free ice cream, which I tasted and had seconds of at a WREC paw-paw party. The cook added only heavy cream to the pulp, as well as a few black chokeberries (blueberries or cher-ries would do, too) for color and taste.

Chilled paw-paw, all by itself, was reportedly one of George Washington’s favorite desserts.

For lovers of wildlife, paw-paw trees are treasures. They attract zebra swallowtail butterflies, which depend on the tree for their lifecycle as monarchs do milkweed. Paw-paws also bring songbirds and small mammals, but not deer.

To taste a paw-paw, you can either search for a tree in the wild at this time of year, or you can visit a commercial paw-paw orchard (Seaberry Farm, outside Federalsburg, in Caroline County was men-tioned to me), or attend a paw-paw festival. Many such festivals take place in September in various states, including our own Maryland. Once forgotten, the paw-paw is becoming fashionable.

In the meantime, happy gardening!

Editor’s Note: Laetitia Sands is a master gardener in Dorchester County.

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