Try Growing a Pawpaw, a Hardy Fruit with a Tropical Flavor
May 20, 2019
I’ve heard about pawpaws all my life, but only recently had a chance to taste one. I knew they were a delicious wild fruit one could find in Midwestern woods near where I grew up, if one knew where to look. When I finally did taste a pawpaw, I understood what all the fuss was about. It has sweet, soft, fragrant, pale yellow flesh similar to that of white sapote, or custard apple a tropical fruit native to Mexico. Since the pawpaw I tasted was from a tree grown near San Francisco, I wondered why this delicious fruit was not anywhere to be found in Bay Area markets.
Pawpaw fruit ripening on a Bay Area Tree
The book “Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit,” by Andrew Moore (Chelsea Green, 2015), explains why. First, pawpaws do not ship well. They bruise easily and become soft when ripe, so the source needs to be near the market. Second, they have a very short season, so unless an eager public is waiting for them, they may all spoil before they’re sold. And because they are still unfamiliar, only the rare aficionado notices that it’s pawpaw season.
Moore’s book traces the history of this largest fruit native to the U.S., and explains how to grow it. Moore also tells about the dedicated researchers who have been breeding superior varieties and about efforts to promote and sell the fruit.
Where does the name pawpaw come from? Europeans, or possibly African slaves, who had come to the mainland from the West Indies, first called them by this name, a variant of the word papaya. They apparently simply didn’t choose a new name for pawpaw fruit, just used one they had used for a rather different one they had eaten on the Caribbean islands.
Pawpaws (Asimina triloba) taste tropical, but are hardy to about 20 below zero. They grow along rivers in much of the eastern U.S. — from southern Michigan and Pennsylvania west to eastern Kansas, south to midway down the states of the Old South and then up the eastern coast. They were relished by many native American tribes, who ate them fresh or dried. George Washington liked chilled pawpaws. Lewis and Clark ate them when passing through a region where they grew. American settlers sometimes removed the trees in favor of planting cornfields, but many wild groves remain, and many a child or adult has delighted in finding them.
Pawpaws were recently sold at the Ferry Plaza Building Farmers Market, but the one nearby farm that sold pawpaws couldn’t make a go of the crop, so took it out to expand other crops. Still, pawpaws make a handsome, easy-to-grow garden fruit tree, so many Bay Area gardeners could be enjoying the fruit while we wait for solutions to the marketing problems.
The tree can reach 35 feet, but might reach only 10-15 feet where summers are cool. Its leaves, up to a foot long, give the tree a tropical look. It’s dormant in winter, then bears small, maroon blossoms before leaves return in spring. The fruits, up to 9 in a cluster, ripen in late August or September. They are 3-6 inches long, weighing 5-16 ounces oz.
Gardeners are growing pawpaws in San Jose, Los Altos. Berkeley and Walnut Creek. The trees have few pests. Deer, rabbits, even goats, are rarely interested in nibbling the strong-tasting leaves, though raccoons, squirrels or opossums do like the fruit, so could be a problem in locations where these pests are active. The tree needs well-drained, fertile soil, with a slightly acidic pH (5-7), and a site out of strong winds. The best time to plant it (a potted seedling is best) is in spring, just before it leafs out. See the website of the California Rare Fruit Growers for more growing tips https://www.crfg.org/pubs/ff/pawpaw.html.
You can purchase plants from Raintree Nursery, (800) 391-8892, raintreenursery.com, or One Green World, (877) 353-4028, onegreenworld.com, or try local nurseries.
Added in the spring of 2021:
There was an article about pawpaws in the New York Times on October 21, 2020. Here is a link to it: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/19/dining/pawpaw-climate-change.html?searchResultPosition=1
The only source offered in that article was the Kentucky State University nursery and trying to find plants or seeds through Facebook fan clubs, Nextdoor, Craigslist, or Etsy, but the two nurseries listed above still carry trees as of spring 2021. In fact One Green World has 4 varieties and a 4-in-one tree. The article mentions Moore's book and lists a second one too: For the Love of Pawpaws: A Mini-manual for Growing and Caring For Pawpaws--From Seed to Table, by Michael Judd.
And on November 5, 2014, the New York Times printed a recipe for Pawpaw pudding. This recipe makes a pudding that you can cut in pieces to serve. Correspondents to the Times found it good, but used less sugar and liked it better. We used to make a pudding from American persimmons that grow in the Midwest, but this pawpaw pudding seems to be firmer, capable of being cut in squares. Here is the link: