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Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch

2007 April 19

By Ken Moore
Flora Columnist

Wow, we now know that because of that recent record-breaking late cold snap, peaches, strawberries and blueberries are going to be really pricey this harvest season. Wait till you see the prices on pawpaws! Well, you probably won’t see any pawpaws (Asimina triloba). You may even be wondering: “What’s a pawpaw?”
Remember that childhood song, “Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch”? Back in earlier years, many folks knew about pawpaws and lots of folks looked forward to harvesting them in the late summer. In Indiana, this largest of all native American fruits is called the Hoosier banana; the 3-to-6-inch-long, mango-like fruit has a mixed banana and pineapple flavor. They are definitely worth finding, scattered throughout the low woods along our local streams and rivers. You’ll have to beat the raccoons and possums to them, however, because the wild critters are expert at harvesting them as soon as they ripen.
I anticipate the flowering of the pawpaw more than any other native tree. It doesn’t present a colorful roadside spectacle like the redbuds and dogwoods, but the subtle beauty of green and burgundy flowers on bare branches are memorable. The individual buds initially expand as green nickel-size, bell-shaped flowers, then mature to a deep burgundy color as the flower opens widely to the size of a half dollar.
Though the recent nights of record-breaking freezes “burned” most of the pawpaw flowers, you can still find a few in the pawpaw patches in our local forests. To enjoy seeing pawpaw flowers without the challenge of searching along woodland trails, visit the two fine specimens in cultivation behind the Totten Center at the Botanical Garden on the east side of Fordham Boulevard. Both of those trees are loaded with flowers, many of them still in good condition with a few buds left to open, so make a visit this week to catch them. And while there, take a real close look at the clusters of tiny fruit beginning to develop. The freezing temperatures were not so severe over the warmth-retaining surfaces of the display gardens behind the Totten Center. The trees are labeled, but if you have difficulty finding them one of the garden staff members will be happy to introduce you to this special plant.
Seeing the pawpaws in cultivation at the Botanical Garden may encourage you to have your own pawpaw patch. They are easy to grow and you’ll want to have two separate plants because fruit set is dependent upon cross pollination of separate plants. Once established, a pawpaw tree typically extends roots laterally to produce numerous upright stems that will eventually create a multi-stemmed “patch” similar to the groves you find in the wild. Knowing this trait, you will want to site your tree where you are willing to be happy with a little grove rather than a single stemmed plant.
The folks at the Botanical Garden sometimes have a few pawpaws available, and Niche Gardens and Cure Nursery currently have a few. When procuring new plants for your home landscape, you will be wise to purchase locally produced plants and select smaller rather than larger plants.
You may enjoy searching the Internet for more information about pawpaws. You will discover the Pawpaw Foundation, which seeks “to reacquaint Americans with this distinctively native fruit and to lay the groundwork for a pawpaw revival by promoting scientific research in the areas of pawpaw breeding, growing, managing, harvesting and use.” The foundation’s goal is to have the pawpaw become as valued a part of the domestic garden as the apple and pear. Just imagine, in years to come we may be able to travel out to one or more local “pick-your-own” pawpaw patches.But in the meantime, I encourage you to enjoy a pawpaw patch in your own yard.

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