Native Pawpaw: The Best American Fruit You’ve Never Heard Of

Native pawpaw, Asimina triloba

They say if you’re mama don’t know, you should go ask your papa. But, it’s anyone’s guess why Americans aren’t growing and eating a delicious fruit known as pawpaw. The small-sized tree produces the largest edible fruit native to North America.

A taste of the tropics

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) brings a rare taste of the jungle to our temperate forests. The only local member of a mainly tropical genus, it grows wild in the eastern United States and Canada. The deciduous tree produces large, greenish-brown fruits that ripen in September and October.

Native pawpaw

Such unusual fruits make for an odd sight on a North American tree. Growing in clusters like coconuts, they look a lot like mangos (although some people compare them to potatoes.)  Fans agree, however, that the fruit’s sweet, tangy flavor is a rich tropical blend of mango with a note of banana, even pineapple. And although they make great ice creams, smoothies and desserts, pawpaws are best enjoyed raw when their creamy, custard-like flesh can be fully appreciated.

Pawpaw fruit

Although they form large groups, pawpaw trees are easy to overlook. That’s because their dull green leaves, modest height and multi-branching structure help them blend in with other understory shrubs in the forest. There’s one distinguishing feature, though, for those on the look-out: their foliage. Pawpaw leaves are wider at the tip than the bottom and hang 8 to 12 inches long, giving the plant a distinctive droopy look.

Pawpaw leaves

So why don’t most Americans know about them? There is evidence pawpaws have been growing in North America for millennia. Research shows Native Americans were growing them as far back as the 1500s and both Washington and Jefferson had pawpaw trees in their gardens. And in April 2014, Michelle Obama planted one in the White House Kitchen Garden.

But you won’t find pawpaws at your local grocery and unless your timing is right, you won’t find them at the farmer’s market either.

Why pawpaws are hard to find 

The good news is that deer avoid pawpaw like the plague, which has resulted in ever expanding pawpaw populations. But, here’s the rub. Fruit production suffers from poor pollination. Although their flowers contain both male and female reproductive parts, pawpaws are self-infertile, meaning they must be fertilized with pollen from a different variety of pawpaw to produce fruit.

And bees aren’t their primary pollinators, flies and beetles are. To attract them, pawpaw produces a stinky, meat-colored flower in the spring, (just like the Denver Botanical Garden’s corpse flower named ‘Stinky’ ) The color and smell of the flowers, coupled with the flies, can be a deal-breaker for many home gardeners.

Pawpaw flowers

Add to that the fact that cold, rainy weather can discourage fly activity (which can result in poor fruit set) and  growers often have little choice but to hand pollinate their pawpaws. To attract its preferred pollinators, others go so far as to hang spoiled meat, even roadkill, in the shrubs’ branches.

It’s enough to give you paws.

Where to buy pawpaws

Ready to sample one? Unless you attend a pawpaw growers’ festival, they are hard to come by. And as I mentioned above, you won’t find pawpaws in most grocery stores. This is partly due to the fact that their large size and soft skins make harvesting the fruits labor-intensive. And their shelf-life is short, just 2 to 3 days, making them impractical to ship.

But, having missed the 3rd annual pawpaw festival here in Maryland, I was anxious to try one. I compiled a list of local farm markets and co-ops that seemed most likely to carry the fruit and started calling. Reactions ranged from “What?”  to “Never heard of that,” or “Sorry, we don’t carry papayas.” It turns out I had missed the window for purchase. I had no choice but to go into the wild and search for my own.

Searching for pawpaws

According to the National Park Service, pawpaws are now one of the most common sapling species on the C&O Canal, GW Memorial Parkway and along the trails of Harpers Ferry (mostly due to deers’ lack of interest.) This was immediately apparent once I hit the C&O towpath. Now that I knew what to look for, I could see long drifts of pawpaw peeking out from under the forest canopy. I had never noticed them before.

Pawpaws line the banks of Maryland’s C&O canal

The challenge of searching for pawpaws can be tedious, but with a punster it’s worse. As we walked, keeping our eyes trained upward, my boyfriend kept up an endless refrain including such goodies as ‘Reminds me of the group mawmaws and pawpaws’ or ‘Did you ever see the photo of the dog with his leg in a sling? He says “I’m looking for the man who shot my paw.’ All in all, we walked for 4 miles.

I wish I could tell you that we finally found the fruits, but though we passed literally hundreds of pawpaws, we didn’t run across a single one. Perhaps the raccoons had gotten them, or savvy hikers, or maybe this summer’s rainy weather had discouraged fruit set. We shook the smaller saplings to see if we could dislodge some we couldn’t see. And we scoured the beds of Japanese switchgrass for some that might have fallen. Sadly, we came up empty-handed.

I haven’t given up, though, and have a possible lead on some fruits in upper Maryland. I’ll keep you posted if I succeed in getting them. Meanwhile, I’ll be heading back to the canal in a month to see the pawpaw foliage, which turns a brilliant yellow in the fall.

* While there are numerous theories on line about how pawpaw got its name, I’m going with this one from the Arnold Arboretum at harvard.edu: the fruit was named by the members of Hernando de Soto’s expedition through the southeastern, United States, who upon noting the Native Americans growing and eating it, named it pawpaw for its resemblance to the tropical fruit papaya.

 

 

Why Leaves Change Color and Other Fun Fall Facts

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Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.

-Albert Camus

I like to think of fall from an Alice In Wonderland perspective; that is, autumn is a time when we shrink in proportion to our gardens while the leaves ‘bloom’ above us.  And each year, nature unveils new surprises, dazzling us with colors and combinations so vivid and daring as to leave little doubt as to her ability to create designs far superior to our own.

While it’s generally believed that cold weather causes a tree’s leaves to change color, the process is in reality a bit more complex. Weather can affect the intensity and duration of color, but the color itself is a part of each tree’s biology. And just like flowers in a garden, every tree has its own colors and ‘bloom’ period that occur at different times during the fall season.

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Nature’s garden

Why do leaves change color?

Leaves change color due to the process of photosynthesis. During the growing season, leaves act as food factories for the plant, capturing sunlight to turn carbon dioxide and water into oxygen and sugar. A chemical called chlorophyll, which absorbs light energy, is responsible for making this happen. It is also the reason why most leaves are green.

In fall, as temperatures cool and days grow shorter, leaves stop their food-making process. As the chlorophyll naturally breaks down, the green color disappears from the leaf surface. Yellow and orange, two colors which until now have been masked by the green, start to become visible.

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Orange-yellow sassafras leaves on Maryland’s Eastern Shore

Some trees like maples, sourwoods and sweet gums, however, start making brand new pigments of their own as their chlorophyll breaks down. These trees produce brilliant shades of red, scarlet and purple. Often you’ll see these colors mixed in with the leaves’ underlying orange and yellow pigments, making for a dazzling show.

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Maple tree in fall

As the season progresses and the temperatures drop further, the cells near the juncture of the leaf and stem weaken and the leaf starts to fall from the tree. The additional pigments begin to break down, the leaf dries up, and only a brown color remains. Some plants, like oaks, retain their brown foliage for a good part of the winter.

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Sycamore leaves turn shades of brown

Weather has a big effect on color

Weather conditions can effect leaves’ color and duration and are the reason why each year the landscape looks slightly different. These conditions include temperature, amount of sunlight and available water supply.

Lots of sunlight combined with low temperatures, for instance, produces brighter reds but shortens their duration. An early frost, however, spells the end of the show. And drought stress during the summer can result in early dropping of leaves before they have a chance to develop any color at all.

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Sugar maple leaf in process of changing color

Surprisingly, a combination of rain and overcast days tend to increase color intensity.

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The best and brightest show, however, usually follows a growing season with lots of rain followed by a dry spell.

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Looking for a great location to see fall foliage? Click here for my post on America’s 10 Best Places to See Spectacular Fall Foliage. It provides an overview of each area and places to stay. Happy fall!

 

 

Flowering Kale: The Coolest Cool-Season Ornamental

The distinctive rosette of ornamental kale

Long before it became a trending food, flowering kale was a garden star, delivering a pop of color to fall’s graying landscape. The ornamental plant is not only prized for its ruffled foliage and spectacular rosette, it’s one of only a few species that actually thrives in cold weather. In fact, flowering kale likes cool temperatures so much that it often stays attractive well into winter, making it the perfect choice for fall gardens and containers. Continue reading

Giant Corpse Flower Unleashes Its Stinky Scent In Denver

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Corpse flower

It was like it was meant to be. Three years ago, I wrote about a rare corpse flower called ‘Stinky’ that was blooming at the Denver Botanic Gardens. This was the first time the 15-year old, putrid-smelling plant had flowered since 2007. The event made national news because up until then Stinky had been in a vegetative state, producing a single leaf, but no flower for almost a decade. Continue reading

Help Save The Monarchs With These 4 Great Milkweeds

Monarch butterfly on swamp milkweed

Last week, I was manning the booth at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds Demonstration Garden (yes, it’s a mouthful), when someone plopped a tall, spindly plant down onto the table. The plant looked pretty pitiful; the flowers were long gone and the lance-shaped leaves had circular holes in them. But upon closer inspection, I spotted a few lantern-shaped chrysalises and some colorful caterpillars working their way up the stems. The plant was none other than milkweed and the ‘lanterns’ contained baby monarchs in the process of forming. Continue reading

Managing Hydrangeas: To Prune Or Not To Prune And Other Existential Questions

To prune or not to prune? That is one of the quintessential gardening questions. Recently I asked a top landscaper in Middleburg, Virginia to weigh in on the issue. “When is the best time to prune hydrangeas without destroying next year’s flowers?” I asked. Her reply?

“Never,” she said with a laugh. “But your best shot is after they’ve bloomed.”

It turns out that knowing how and when to prune hydrangeas involves first, knowing what kind of hydrangeas you have growing in your garden. Different varieties require different pruning methods. Prune at the wrong time and you risk trimming off next year’s blooms. It all starts with knowing whether your hydrangeas flower on old or new wood. Continue reading

6 Top Monardas Join The Resistance Against Powdery Mildew

Monarda didyma, Scarlet bee balm

Monarda, commonly known as bee balm, is a spectacular plant when grown under the right conditions. Given plenty of sunlight and well-draining soil, it can flower from mid-July to late summer. Still, the plant’s annoying propensity to develop powdery mildew often make it an eyesore in the garden. That’s why researchers at Delaware’s Mt Cuba Center recently set out to determine which monardas offer the best protection against disease in the Atlantic region. Continue reading

Orchids 101 (For Beginners Only)

Paphiopedium orchid at Pennyslvania’s Longwood Gardens

Years ago I was touring the Filoli mansion in Woodside, California when I came across an unusual flowering plant. It was perched on a table in an upstairs hallway and sported tiny, reddish-brown blossoms. Plunging my nose into the petals, I discovered its flowers smelled exactly like chocolate. Continue reading

True-Blue Flowers: A Dozen Of The Best And Brightest

Himalayan Blue Poppy at Pennsylvania’s Longwood Gardens/Kari Wilner

Years ago, in an effort to distract my middle-school aged daughters, I dragged them to an avant-garde exhibit at Washington, DC’s Hirshhorn Museum. The show was a one-color retrospective on the works of the French artist, Yves Klein (1928-1962) and it focused on the color blue; specifically, a supersaturated deep blue created by Klein that made you feel like you had been sucked out to sea and were drowning. Needless to say, it left an indelible impression on all of us. Continue reading

Snowdrops: A Surefire Cure For The Mid Winter Doldrums

Common snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis

At first glance, it seems impossible. It’s the middle of February and small clusters of tiny white flowers are breaking through the frozen soil. Snowdrops, or Galanthus, are for many the harbingers of spring. To me, their yearly emergence mid winter is the perfect symbol for courage and resilience as, one by one, they infuse cold weather months with a new kind of meaning. Continue reading