Would you believe there’s a tropical fruit that grows wild in 26 states across the eastern U.S., including eastern Kansas? It’s called a pawpaw (not to be confused with papaya), the largest edible fruit native to the United States. Pawpaw trees usually grow under the canopy of larger hardwood trees in the rich soil of river-bottom woodlands. Most available pawpaws are foraged from the wild, however, there are a small number of commercial orchards that offer cultivated varieties for sale. Pawpaws look a little like green mangos that weigh about one-half of a pound and grow individually or in clusters like bananas. They have a distinctive flavor, a cross between banana, mango and pineapple. Pawpaws have a very pleasing, floral scent. The flesh is yellow-orange in color with a texture like a baked sweet potato – smooth and custardy. Just like bananas, ripe pawpaws bruise easily. They may be covered with black spots, but they’re perfectly good to eat. Fruit that has already fallen is also good to eat. Pawpaw season is short, from late August through mid-October.
Typically, pawpaw trees grow 10 to 20 feet tall (about the size of a dogwood), with a cone-shaped form and a trunk diameter of eight to 12 inches. Their dark green leaves are oblong and droopy, giving it a distinctly tropical look. The trees leaf out in late spring and start to turn yellow in mid to late fall. Pawpaw blossoms have an unusual, exotic look, but bees aren’t interested in their nectar. Their fleshy looking burgundy-brown petals have a disagreeable smell. Their fetid odor attracts flies and other insects that eat decaying flesh. These are their primary pollinators. It’s hard to imagine such stinky flowers producing such delicious fruit. Some gardeners even hang rotten meat in their pawpaw trees to attract as many flies as possible.
The recent farm-to-table movement has sparked a renewed interest in heirloom fruits and vegetables. Historically, pawpaws were an important food crop, highly nutritious and widely abundant. Their brief season and short shelf life make them unsuitable for commercial farming. Because most of us don’t know how to forage for food in the wild, pawpaws have disappeared from our foodscape. Interest in pawpaws is growing, and hunting them each fall may become as popular as hunting morel mushrooms in the spring.
Growing your own pawpaws is challenging, but rewarding. Growing pawpaws from seed is probably not worth the effort. It can take up to eight years to bear fruit. Don’t order bare root trees either. Their roots are too fragile to transplant. Your best bet is to order potted pawpaw trees online from specialty nurseries or even Wal-Mart or Home Depot. You can have fruit in as few as two or three years. Pawpaws aren’t self-fertile so you’ll need to plant at least two or three different varieties to maximize your chances for successful pollination. Plant trees five to 10 feet apart.
Pawpaws are best eaten fresh, but don’t eat the skins and seeds. Simply slice the fruit in half and scoop out the pulp with a spoon. You can substitute pawpaws in most recipes that call for bananas.
Savor the tropical flavor of pawpaws grown in your own backyard.
Rachel and Ivan Minnis are avid gardeners. They live in Leavenworth. For more information, visit The Minnis Rose Garden on Facebook. Contact them at email@example.com