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In the garden: Dedicated gardener finally has own pawpaw patch
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In the garden: Dedicated gardener finally has own pawpaw patch

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If you’re over 90-years-old you just might remember The Pawpaw Patch song. Tucked away in our collective memory, this American native fruit tree has become so rare most of us have never tried one.

“Why do you insist on growing a tree that grows a fruit you never tasted?” I was asked nearly 20 years ago.

“Because it’s the only way I’ll ever get to try one!” I retorted.

Growing pawpaw trees became an obsession. To begin, I ordered pawpaw seeds on-line. After sowing these magic beans, it took nearly 15 years for the first pawpaw fruits to form. In 2017, I patiently watched my fruits grow month by month, week by week. Did I finally get to taste my first pawpaw?

Yes! But this nearly didn’t happen.

During the early morning hours of a mid-September day, a coven of white tailed deer gathered at my paw patch. Young deer — even those never having seen or tasted a pawpaw — cannot resist its delightful tropical aroma, its lure.

Had I not been an insomniac out fetching my newspaper in the predawn darkness, this could’ve easily been a tale of bitter disappointment.

So come join me on my pawpaw growing journey…

How I grew my own pawpaw patch

The American pawpaw, Asimina triloba, is a deciduous tree grown in USDA hardiness zones 5 through 8 which includes the Gulf Coastal plain to southern Michigan.

According to Kentucky State University Cooperative Extension’s Pawpaw Planting Guide, “Most named cultivars originated in the Midwest, which is the northern portion of the pawpaws’s range.”

After several failed attempts growing bare root pawpaw whips ordered from cheap mail order catalogs, I ordered seeds on-line from a grower in Arkansas. Much of Arkansas is U.S. Hardiness Zone 7 which is the same as most of Central Virginia. I wasn’t given a specific cultivar when I received my seeds in the mail. Back then, I didn’t think to ask.

Every bare root whip I ordered never lived through its first winter. Then I ordered a container grown pawpaw from a respected mail order grower. Initially it struggled but later thrived. Pawpaws have a long and delicate tap root that can easily be damaged. This can be problematic when transplanting young trees. The pawpaws I grew from seed are my fruit bearers today.

Pawpaws are an understory tree. This is why they are often found in nature along river banks. The soil should be slightly acidic (pH 5.5-7). Good drainage is essential. The pawpaw is a small tree rarely growing over 25 feet. For example, my 19-year-old trees are no more than 15 feet high. I suggest choosing a permanent growing area that is screened from late afternoon summer sun.

If starting from seed, seeds should receive a period of cold, moist stratification for 70 to 100 days. In other words, place your seeds in a sphagnum moss-packed plastic bag. Store this bag in a refrigerator (40 degrees F) for at least two months. The seeds will germinate in about two to three weeks, and the shoots will emerge later. For the first several years, don’t expect much. The root system will be working hard on establishing itself. Saplings will begin to bear fruit when the trees reach about six feet in height. This requires at least five to eight years. I suggest growing as many paw paws as possible. At least two flowering trees are required for fruiting.

Fall planting is recommended in Virginia for many shrubs and trees. However, pawpaw seedlings or nursery-ordered pawpaw trees should only be transplanted in spring. This is important because unlike most young trees, pawpaws go completely dormant in winter.

Plan to save time by purchasing trees

Pawpaws bought from nurseries, are either saplings or grafts. The saplings are usually one to two-years-old at the time of purchase. Grafted trees are generally two to three-years-old at the time of purchase. Again, if fruit production is desired, purchase at least two trees.

Established pawpaws often send out suckers. Warning: digging out these suckers for eventual transplanting is seldom successful. The tree roots are simply too delicate and shock too easily.

Early care for young Pawpaws

It’s recommended when first planting young pawpaw trees in their new home, the trees should be planted eight feet apart. Naturally, trees should be watered immediately after planting. Special care should be taken throughout the first two years. Consistent moisture is vital. A fertilizer (20-20-20) should be applied every few weeks during the first several growing seasons.

How many Pawpaws does it take to make a Pawpaw?

At least two. Pawpaws are not self-pollinating. Since pawpaws in my area hadn’t existed in many years, I wasn’t sure if its natural pollinators existed either. Pawpaws form small reddish- brown bell-like flowers in early spring before the pawpaw tree actually leafs out. When my pawpaw patch finally had two separate flowering pawpaw trees, I took a Q-tip or ear swab and cross pollinated my trees by hand. According to Kentucky State University Cooperative Extension’s Pawpaw Planting Guide, “Using a small, flexible artist’s brush, transfer a quantity of fresh pollen from the anthers of the flower of one clone to the ripe stigma of the flower of another clone.” I tried as hard as I could to replicate the patterns of native bees. I went from tree to tree and then back again every day for at least a week. The stigma of the flower is ripe when the pistils are green. Pollen grains resemble yellow dust.

I witnessed tiny bees visiting my pawpaw flowers as well. Success! After the flowers withered, the medium green oblong leaves of the pawpaw began to leaf out. It was after the eight-inch leaves formed, and by May, I observed ten little quarter-sized pawpaw fruits forming. By the time September arrived, I was down to five fruits. When I heard on the local news that James River Park was beginning to harvest pawpaws, my own pawpaw watch in Cumberland County began. The fruits can weigh up to 16 ounces and are up to six inches in length making the pawpaw fruit the largest fruit native to America.

Pawpaws are soft when ripe and emit a pleasant tropical aroma. You can tell pawpaws are ripe when they fall from the tree with a light shake.

Taste’ em!

A ripe pawpaw tastes like a blend of mango and banana all in a custard-like texture. I love them! Unfortunately, the pawpaw has a few problems preventing it from becoming a commercial fruit. Pawpaws simply have no shelf life. The skin is very thin and bruises easily. Their window from ripe to rotten is only a few days.

What to do? Eat’em fast. Good news: The fresh pulp can be frozen. It can also be substituted for bananas in banana bread recipes, or used as an ingredient in chutney, fruit salsa or homemade ice cream.

Not for pleasure alone

Like many native plants, pawpaws are hosts to native animal species. Eurytides marcellus, the zebra swallowtail butterfly, is an especially beautiful one. Their larvae feed on young pawpaw foliage. Since the pawpaws’ leaves do not form until after the flowers begin dropping, the butterflies pose no threat to pollination and fruit formation. The zebra swallowtail larvae should not be confused with Malacosoma americanum commonly known as spring webworms, tent worms or Eastern tent caterpillars. These caterpillars are the dark furry worms that weave silky webs around the branches of black cherry, apple, or crabapple trees.

Virginia McCown is a master gardener and master food volunteer living in Central Virginia along with her garden and assorted creatures both great and small.

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