Put a Pawpaw in Your Pocket

Where, oh where is dear little Nellie?
Where, oh where is dear little Nellie?
Where, oh where is dear little Nellie?
Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch.

Pickin' up pawpaws, puttin' 'em in your pocket,
Pickin' up pawpaws, puttin' 'em in your pocket,
Pickin' up pawpaws, puttin' 'em in your pocket,
Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch.

                                          --American Folk Song
    
pawpaw2I sang that song as a child.  I had never seen a pawpaw. My parents and grandparents never talked of one.  As far as I knew, gathering pawpaws was like hunting a snipe or lassoing Sasquatch.

Later, I learned the pawpaw (botanical name Asimina triloba) was real, not imaginary.  As an adult, I obtained two pawpaw seedlings and planted them out of curiosity and desire for the unusual.

The pawpaws have been bearing for several years now, and I am pleased I gave in to my curiosity and desire.  I also realized there is a lot this little folk ditty can teach us about this native but little-known fruit tree.

Pawpaws are indeed more likely to grow “down yonder” in bottomland with deep soil than on higher and drier sites.

Pawpaws send up suckers and form a small colony of trees, a “patch” if you will. 

The fruits drop to the ground when ripe, hence the necessity for “pickin’ up pawpaws” rather than harvesting them off the tree.  It is possible to pick pawpaws ripe off the tree, but they are sweetest if not picked until fully ripe and that is when they are ready to fall or have already fallen.  

The pocket referred to in the song is an apron pocket or a tie-on pocket – a separate garment that women wore before pockets were sewn into clothes the way we know them today.  The pawpaw is the largest fruit native to temperate North America and has a soft consistency.  A pawpaw in the pocket of modern-style clothes would be a mess – if you could even fit one in there.  The pocket reference is an indication of the age of the song and that people have been eating pawpaws a long time.

And finally, I can certainly understand why dear little Nellie would slip away from her friends to go gather pawpaws – they are a sweet and tasty treat. 

Not only Nellie and I think so.  None other than the Father of Our Country, George Washington, proclaimed the chilled pawpaw a favorite dessert.  In addition to the rich flavor, he probably liked the creamy, custard-like texture.  (Remember his false teeth…) 

My pawpaws ripen in August.  This year there was a bumper crop.  The flavor of the pawpaw is often described as a mixture of mango, pineapple and banana.  The neighbors, friends, family and co-workers I shared this year’s crop with concurred and also mentioned overtones of pear, papaya and cantaloupe. The most popular description of the flavor is that it is “tropical.”

If the fruit is so flavorful, why is it not more popular?

The main reason is probably the fruit’s short shelf life – two or three days at room temperature and a little longer in the refrigerator.  A commercially viable fresh fruit must hold up longer for shipping and storage.  I tried picking some of the fruit green to see how it would ripen.  The results were not satisfactory; the flavor was smoky and harsh.   
 
Other reasons could be problems with propagation.  Pawpaws don’t transplant well from the wild.  However, unlike apples and pears, pawpaws grown from seed are similar to their parents.  The downside is that the seeds should not dry out, are slow to germinate and require a period of moist chilling before they will sprout.  These things could have kept the best forms of pawpaw from spreading beyond their local area in the days before there were nurseries to select, propagate and distribute the best ones. 

Kentucky State University has a pawpaw research program which aims to improve propagation methods and find better ways to grow and use the fruit.  With such a large area where it is native – from Florida north to New York, Ontario and Michigan and west to Iowa, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas – there is wide genetic diversity among pawpaws with regard to size, flavor and ripening time of the fruit and, consequently, a need to find and study the best specimens. 

Some people may be put off by the texture of the fruit because they think a fruit so soft must be over-ripe or spoiled.  Some people, like Washington, find the creamy texture appealing. The smooth pulp can be an asset in working with pawpaws.  It blends easily into ice cream.  I shared some pawpaw fruits with a neighbor who in turn shared some of the delicious ice cream he made with them.  I imagine it would be ideal for sherbets or sorbets as the frozen pulp is practically a sorbet all by itself.  I mixed the soft pulp of fresh pawpaws into pancake batter for some pancakes so moist and sweet they didn’t require any syrup. (And I even cut down on the sugar in the recipe.) 
 
Since growing your own is currently the only way to get a taste, I encourage gardeners to give the pawpaw a try.  A few garden centers and mail-order nurseries carry pawpaws.  Some offer named varieties propagated by cuttings or grafting.  Avoid bareroot plants as they do not transplant well; buy those grown in containers instead.  Don’t be afraid to plant small ones; they will grow. Two different varieties are recommended for good pollination.  Two seedlings will also work.  Even though seedlings are similar to their parents, they are not genetically identical and will suffice for pollination purposes. (The two I planted originally are “Select Seedlings” that came from Edible Landscaping in Afton, Virginia.)

From a landscaping perspective, pawpaw trees can be an interesting addition to a garden.  The large (up to 12 inches or more long and six inches wide), drooping leaves provide a tropical effect.  Fall color on my trees is a pleasant moderate yellow. 

Pawpaw trees are small.  The tallest in my patch is about 20 feet.  I have never pruned or fertilized them. The tendency for the trees to sucker has not been a problem in my garden.  Unlike bamboo, the suckers are easy to pull up – a task certainly easier than pruning an apple tree.  However, it is always good to consider your neighbors’ wishes before you plant something near the property line that might slip into their yard.

Pawpaws don’t have any serious disease or insect pest problems.  Caterpillars of the beautiful zebra swallowtail may eat on a few leaves, but not to an extent to do any real damage.  I have not had any appear to take nary a nibble, although, as a butterfly lover, I would be thrilled if they did. 

Pawpaw flowers, brownish maroon bells that appear in before the leaves in spring, are attractive although not showy.  Some writers describe the flowers as fetid.  As I mentioned earlier, there is wide genetic diversity among the plants, and smell is subjective, but mine are not fetid.  They do have a yeasty odor that is only apparent if you stick your nose in one.  I do not consider it unpleasant. 

Pawpaws may never become a fruit of great or even modest economic importance, but I do think it is a crop with potential.  I believe there is a place for the fruit in our kitchens and a place for the trees in gardens, parks and woodlands.  For those interested in learning more I recommend these two books by Lee Reich: Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden and Uncommon Fruits Worthy of Attention.  I also recommend visiting the website of the Kentucky State University Pawpaw Program at http://www.pawpaw.kysu.edu/ for information about pawpaw research as well as an archive of news stories about the pawpaw and even a few recipes.

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