Sunday, March 15, 2015

In Pursuit of the Pawpaw

I’ve never tasted a pawpaw, but I’ve often dreamed of it. I started to be aware of the existence of pawpaws and pawpaw trees about 15 years ago, when I worked at Georgia Wildlife Federation (GWF) near Atlanta. The organization did a lot to promote the use of native plants in home landscapes, and we even sold common pawpaw trees, which are native to a good portion of the country, at one of our fundraising events.

I had to write a little blurb about the common pawpaw (Asimina triloba) for our plant sale catalog, and the research I did while writing got me so excited. The little tree had big, lush, drooping leaves with a tropical look, I read, and delectable, custard-like fruit whose flavor and texture were likened, by more than one writer, to banana cream pie. I began to get a craving.

My dad told me he had eaten pawpaws before, as a little boy in North Carolina. They grew in the woods around his grandfather's farm and he'd go picking them with his wild country cousins.

I asked him if the farm still existed.

No, Dad said, it had been developed into a subdivision. Those wild cousins had become millionaires.

Pawpaws were better known in the old days, I guessed, when there were more farms and woods and fewer subdivisions and people lived closer to the land.

Dad as a child (with Granny) in the 1940s

The pawpaws we sold at GWF were grown by my colleague Terry, who owned 80 acres in the country and was well acquainted with these mysterious plants. In late summer, she and her husband would go pawpaw picking in the woods around GWF’s headquarters. Pawpaws looked kind of like short, fat bananas, she told me. “And when they’re ripe, you can just smell ‘em,” she said. “You can just follow your nose.”

I used to walk the trails in the woods around GWF, sniffing, hunting for pawpaws, but I never found any except a couple of green ones. They ripened, Terry told me, at some magic moment “usually around Labor Day.” Somehow I always missed it.

Georgia Wildlife Federation headquarters circa 2001

I didn’t plant my own pawpaw tree until I moved to Quincy—because my little backyard in Atlanta just didn’t have the room. Now I have four pawpaws. They’ve never fruited, not even the oldest ones, which I planted 10 years ago, but the trees themselves are quite decorative.

In early spring, at the same time or just before the leaves uncurl, small six-petaled flowers appear. They’re reddish brown and smell faintly fetid—two qualities that are very attractive to carrion-loving flies and poop-loving beetles, which are the pawpaw’s primary pollinators. I agree with the flies and beetles—the flowers are cute, though I don’t think they look like meat or poop. No, to me they look like little jingle bells arranged up and down the branches of the tree.

The leaves of the common pawpaw are bright green and glossy and can measure up to a foot long. Because of the way they hang from the tree, they put me in mind of the crystal droplets on a chandelier—they just kind of dangle.

New spring leaves

The leaves are even prettier when they’re studded with tiny, bead-like butterfly eggs and striped caterpillars—at least that’s my opinion. Pawpaw hosts the zebra swallowtail. This beautiful butterfly is picky; it will only lay its eggs on plants in the genus Asimina—and throughout much of the zebra swalowtail’s range Asimina triloba is the only Asmina around. (This isn’t true in Florida, which has, I think, eight native pawpaw species.)

Common pawpaws can grow up to 30 feet tall, but 15 to 20 feet is more common. Pawpaws do best when they’re planted in part shade in deep, rich, loamy soil. Though they fruit better with more light, it’s tough to get them established in the open. Young trees, in my experience, need some protection from the sun.

My mom has a pawpaw tree in her yard, and it fruited last summer. She was so excited, she called me at work to tell me the news. “My pawpaw’s got pawpaws!” she exclaimed. I love this kind of phone call. A few weeks ago, Mom called me and announced, without even a hello, “Well, the robins have arrived on Avon Circle!” (Avon Circle is the name of her street.)

“Neat,” I replied.

“Got here this morning!” she went on. “Just a huge flock! Well, that’s my news for the day!”

I wished I could drive over to her house and rejoice with her, but I was stuck in my office (in a dreary basement).

Mom in her yard

It was June of last year when Mom discovered her pawpaws. “Now when can I pick ‘em?” she asked me. “They’re just as green as can be.”

“Um, I’m not sure,” I said. “I know they get kind of yellow and speckled when they’re ripe, kind of like a banana. But I’m not sure how long it will take.”

Mom went to Wisconsin later that month, to visit her brothers and sisters. It was a terrible trip. While she was there her brother David died, and then a few days after she returned home, she had a heart attack. By the time she got out of the hospital, her precious pawpaws had disappeared.

“I guess a raccoon stole them,” I said.

“And I never even got to try one!” Mom lamented.

But we haven’t given up.

Mom called me the other day (at work) to tell me that her pawpaw was blooming. “Just covered in blooms!” she said.

Two of my trees are blooming too.

Come summer, we might be rolling in pawpaws. Who knows?

A couple little flower buds on one of my trees

Flower fully open. The flowers usually hang down bell-like, but I turned this one over so you could see the inside.