Thursday, October 15, 2009

Pickin' up pawpaws - a yummy garden chore

Pickin' up pawpaws, puttin' 'em in your pocket, Pickin' up pawpaws, puttin' 'em in your pocket, Pickin' up pawpaws, puttin' 'em in your pocket, Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch.

I sang that song as a child even though I had never seen a pawpaw, and my parents or grandparents never talked of one. As far as I knew, gathering pawpaws was like hunting a snipe or lassoing Sasquatch.

As an adult, I obtained two pawpaw seedlings and planted them out of curiosity and desire for the unusual. The pawpaws have been bearing for several years now, and I am pleased I gave in to my curiosity and desire. I also realized there is a lot this little folk ditty can teach us about this native but little-known fruit tree.

Pawpaws (Asimina triloba) are indeed more likely to grow “down yonder” in bottomland with deep soil than on higher and drier sites. They send up suckers and form a small colony of trees, or a “patch.” It’s is the largest fruit native to temperate North America and has a soft consistency.

Pawpaws drop to the ground when ripe, hence the necessity to pick them up, rather than harvest them off the tree. It is possible to pick them, but they are sweetest if not picked until fully ripe and ready to fall or have already fallen.

The pocket referred to in the song is an apron pocket or a tie-on pocket – a garment that women wore before pockets were sewn into clothes. A pawpaw in the pocket of modern-style clothes would make a mess – if you could even fit one in there. The pocket reference is an indication of the age of the song and how long people have been eating pawpaws.

I can understand why Nellie would slip away to gather pawpaws. They are sweet and tasty.
Not only Nellie and I think so. The Father of Our Country, George Washington, proclaimed the chilled pawpaw a favorite dessert. In addition to the rich flavor, he probably liked the creamy, custard-like texture. (Remember his false teeth.)

The flavor has been described as a mixture of mango, pineapple and banana. Friends and coworkers have mentioned overtones of pear, papaya and cantaloupe.

If the fruit is so flavorful, why is it not more popular?

The main reason is probably the fruit’s short shelf life, which is two to three days at room temperature and a little longer in the refrigerator. I tried picking some of the fruit green to see how it would ripen. The results were not satisfactory. The flavor was smoky and harsh.

Other reasons could be problems with propagation. Pawpaws don’t transplant well from the wild. However, unlike apples and pears, pawpaws grown from seed are similar to their parents. The downside is that the seeds should not dry out, are slow to germinate and require a period of moist chilling before they will sprout.

Some people may be put off by its texture because they think a fruit so soft must be over-ripe or spoiled. Others find the creamy texture appealing.

The smooth pulp can be an asset as it blends easily into ice cream. I imagine it would be ideal for sherbets or sorbets as the frozen pulp is practically a sorbet all by itself. I mixed the soft pulp into pancake batter for pancakes so moist and sweet they didn’t require syrup. (And I even cut down on the sugar in the recipe.)

Since growing your own is currently the only way to get a taste, I encourage gardeners to give the pawpaw a try. A few garden centers and mail-order nurseries carry pawpaws. Some offer named varieties propagated by cuttings or grafting.

Avoid bare-root plants as they do not transplant well. Buy those grown in containers instead.

And don’t be afraid to plant small ones.

For good pollination, plant two different varieties.

Aside from their fruit, pawpaw trees can be interesting additions to a garden. The leaves, which can be a foot or more long and six inches wide, provide a tropical effect. Fall color on my trees is an attractive moderate yellow, although I have read that some varieties can be more vibrant.

By Arty Schronce
Georgia Department of Agriculture

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