Thursday, November 8, 2012

Paw Paw Patch

Colleen Golden, Atlanta Botanical Garden Senior Horticulturist of the Edible Garden, writes about a particular patch of interesting trees.

Asimina triloba, or Paw Paw, is the largest fruit native to the eastern United States, yet many people have never heard of it.  At the Atlanta Botanical Garden, we have a handful of paw paw trees in the beds adjacent to the edible amphitheater.  I grew up singing a song about paw paws that some might be familiar with, something about being “way down yonder in the paw paw patch.”  But in my entire life I had never seen a paw paw tree or tasted a fruit.  Consequently, I have been very excited for our paw paws to fruit and have paid very special attention to them each year, first noticing the non showy burgundy flowers that emerge before the leaves in the spring and then searching for any sign of fruit set in vain.  People suggested the trees had not made any fruit because they weren’t old enough yet, but others gave this advice: since paw paw flowers are pollinated by flies and beetles hang raw chicken necks on the branches when the trees are in bloom to attract pollinators.  Gross!  I knew that latter nugget of advice would not fly here at the Garden.  Don’t worry, I have good news, apparently seedlings will fruit when they get about six feet tall.  We harvested our first fruit in August sans a raw chicken gallows!

One fruit, one intoxicatingly fragrant kidney shaped greenish-yellow fruit.  Other common names for the paw paw include Poor Man’s Banana, Custard Apple and Hoosier Banana.  The skin is thin, and cutting through the middle reveals a handful of large lima bean shaped brown seeds and a soft creamy colored pulp.  We ate it straight out of the skin with a spoon although it is said to be good in ice creams and pies as well.  It tastes like a cross between a banana and a mango - really delicious.  It is actually a very healthy fruit rich in manganese, magnesium, zinc, iron, copper and amino acids. 

A paw paw is a deciduous small tree or large shrub.  It is the only temperate member of the tropical Annonaceae family which includes other delicious fruits like soursop (guanabana) and custard apple.  In the wild, the plant grows along streams or ravines in full sun or shade.  Optimum fruit set happens in the full sun; however, the first year or two after planting the trees can benefit from a little shade.  The term ‘paw paw patch’ comes from the plant’s ability to produce root suckers.  If these suckers are allowed to grow and produce suckers of their own a patch is formed.  The seeds contain alkaloids and are toxic if eaten.  These same toxic chemicals served early settlers well as they would used crushed seeds as an insecticide.  Paw paws are not self fertile so make sure to plant at least two unrelated trees to ensure fruit set.  

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