Decades ago, pawpaws inspired a generation of kids to dance around the family room “picking up pawpaws,” singing along with Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Green Jeans on the black-and-white TV.
Even then, though, most Americans had completely forgotten what pawpaws looked like. With good reason, National Public Radio reporter Allison Aubrey has called pawpaws America’s forgotten fruit.
Our national pawpaw amnesia may be coming to end. For decades, agronomists and farmers have quietly been selecting varieties of this tasty fruit and consistently reaping big harvests. Festivals have popped up across the country, including North Carolina’s Pawpaw Festival in Winston-Salem.
A recent Kickstarter campaign supported pawpaw awareness in Europe and Japan, Fullsteam Brewery in Durham is making a pawpaw version of Belgian-style golden ale and pawpaws now have a Facebook page.
Gardeners are getting interested in pawpaws, too. The attractive small trees with long, tropical looking leaves, which turn brilliant yellow in the fall, are promising candidates for urban edible landscaping.
“Pawpaws are great on city lots because they are small and quite attractive, they have great fall color and look rather tropical in the summer,” said Derek Morris, of N.C. Cooperative Extension, who founded North Carolina’s Pawpaw Festival. “And, of course, they are the only source of food for the beautiful zebra swallowtail butterfly larvae.”
Though pawpaws ripen in late summer, April is the best time to plant them in Charlotte gardens. Pawpaws are relatively easy to grow because they are part of the natural landscape across the eastern United States. But starting your own pawpaw patch is not as simple as going out to the woods and digging up a few seedlings, because they do not transplant easily.
“Containerized plants are much easier to establish than bareroot,” Morris said. “And those interested in fruit quality should only plant grafted trees. Many seedlings have fruit that may end up being bitter or too seedy.”
Mr. Green Jeans’ old folk song got a lot of the botany right. Pawpaws form runners that sprout into new trees, naturally forming a pawpaw patch. Fruits fall when ripe, so you have to bend over to pick them up. Trees are small, typically just 12 to 20 feet tall. My little stand of three has already started to spread as much as 20 feet away, but the sprouts are easy to control.
Pawpaws do best in moist soil with excellent drainage.
“They are not too fussy to get established if you keep in mind they need about an inch or so of water per week in the summer, and this is most important the first two years of its life,” Morris said. “When planting, I like to add a shovel or two of organic matter such as well-rotted compost or manure, and mulch the tree well with any organic mulch. While they do quite well in a lot of shade, the most fruits will be produced when the trees are planted in full sun.”
Kentucky State recommends close spacing to help with pollination. Because pawpaws are not self-pollinating, plant more than one variety. Pawpaws are blooming this time of year, the rather odd purplish blossoms appearing long before leaves.
Their scent, while not noticeable, is not a selling point. The rotten smell attracts flies and beetles for pollination. An old trick was to hang road kill in the pawpaw patch to get more fruit. Urbanites might want to try the horticultural technique of artificially pollinating using a soft paint brush, instead.
“Two different varieties or clones are needed to get fruit,” Morris said. “If one is very short on space, it is possible to plant two trees in essentially the same hole. I would space them 18 inches apart and prune them so they do not grow into each other so badly, and try and keep them close to the same height.”
Fruits may weigh up to a pound and sometimes grow in clusters. Their taste can be delicious, a combination of banana, mango and pineapple. Morris recommends the varieties Sunflower, Overleese, NC-1 (from Canada), Wabash, Potomac, Shenandoah and Susquehanna.
A short list of types to try includes Wells (given a superb rating for flavor by University of Virginia,) Overleese, Prolific, Taylor and Taytoo.
Finding pawpaw seedlings to plant in your yard is much easier than it used to be. You can ask at local plant sales coming up this month, or try mail order sources.
Are pawpaws the next big thing in local foods? Pawpaws can be grown organically, because they are well adapted and have few pests or diseases.
They are highly nutritious, adaptable for processing into everything from jam to ice cream (not to mention beer), and may contain natural compounds that are anti-cancer and anti-pest. However, pawpaws are still basically wild plants that are only partially understood.
Some compounds may prompt an allergic response in a few people, and its ripening pattern is better for folk songs than high-tech mechanized picking. But perhaps the biggest barrier is that most of us have forgotten what pawpaws are. Gardeners can be on the front lines of changing that situation.
Don Boekelheide is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Don? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pawpaw Festival: The eighth annual North Carolina Pawpaw Festival, 10 a.m.- 1 p.m. Aug. 29 in Winston-Salem. Call 336-703-2850 for information.
For an up-to-date list of pawpaw nurseries compiled by Kentucky State, visit: www.pawpaw.kysu.edu/pawpaw/nurslst.htm
Triplants Wholesale Nursery and Full Of Life Farms, 2125 Jay Shambley Road, Pittsboro, NC 27312, www.fulloflifefarms.com, 919-548-4300
Peterson Pawpaws, P.O. Box 1011, Harpers Ferry, W.V. 25425, www.petersonpawpaws.com