Thursday, September 22, 2016

The PawPaw Fruit Tree is not the Unicorn of the Garden! Discover its Homegrown Taste

PawPaw. Say it again. PawPaw. Isn’t it lyrical (in the true sense)? In fact, the pawpaw is indeed a beloved American folk song, a kind of treasured nursery rhyme, and a full-throated scout song. Sing it with me: “Picking up pawpaws; puttin’ ‘em in your pockets, pickin’ up pawpaws, puttin’ ‘em in a basket. Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch.”

Ahhh - it’s all coming back. Bet you thought it was just a fun song - and that it is, no doubt. However, the backstory to the popular ditty is based on solid horticulture.
The Asimina triloba or pawpaw is a true American, by and large eastern native -- and homegrown personalities from George Washington (a chilled pawpaw was his go-to dessert) to Disney Paw, paw, patch have sung its glories. The tree is the largest native North American fruit that boasts a banana-like, mango, honey taste with a custard-like texture. After all, it’s in the same plant family as the custard apple and ylang-ylang.

I planted an asimina triloba - aka: pawpaw about 16 years ago in a Garden State client’s yard in a front garden room, as part of that bed’s native plants composition. It was a good-looking tree right off the bat; big elongated, curvy leaves that appear rather tropical that turn a soft yellow in the fall.

From a design viewpoint, I wanted the Asimina to work with the other plants there, especially in the autumn complementing the birch’s yellow leaves and the callicarpa/Beautyberry's purple berries.

Yet, after the decade-plus euphoria about the tree itself waned, (just a smidge) and I was more horticulturally sophisticated :) -- I so yearned for the fruit. Where oh where was the pawpaw’s dreamed of fruit?

I reached out to Clemson and other land grant universities to determine why we had no fruit. The answer was embarrassingly obvious. We needed a mate! Yet how to determine the sex of your paw-paw was not entirely clear to me; plus with lots of seemingly more pressing deadlines and needs - I just didn’t learn the gender of our baby...

Then, with no matchmaking or OK-Cupid -- there was no denying those purple, royal-looking, double-frocked, cone-shaped flowers dripping from the paw-paw this spring - surely a hopeful sign of good things to come.

See, the paw-paws can spread by runners or suckers -- thereby creating the irrepressible “way down yonder in the pawpaw patch.” Somewhere in that patch tree love took root!

(There is a very scientific reason to explain the rhizomes and their ability to separate as new plants to reproduce.)

So, it was with great excitement that a few week’s ago, that Darin - a very talented horticulturist and Master Gardener I'm privileged to have work with me and Duchess Designs, pointed up to the low hanging pawpaw fruit! I could barely contain my joy.

This was news to share with friends and like-minded food and garden tribes on my social media: @chefsgardens on Twitter and Instagram and @GardenGlamour and on Facebook, too. Folks were pea-green with envy! :)

I couldn’t wait to try the fruit. One was soft already despite it being only August and the fruits generally don’t mature till early autumn around by me. I couldn’t wait.

Back home, I cut the fruit lengthwise - kind of like cutting into an avocado (the pawpaw leaves are not unlike that of the avocado, as well) - and reveled in the satisfaction of at long last seeing this kind of unicorn of the native fruit world.

Slowly, I scooped up the custard like flesh and tasted. It was thick, creamy, truly a mash-up of banana and mango -- perhaps a bit of pineapple or papaya -- as billed, with a bit of a sugary, honey aftertaste.

Altogether, it tasted like “more!”

I tried to stretch out the tasting as long as I could. It was refreshing and at the same time the texture was substantive - if you know what I mean. The pawpaw fruit premiere tasting was everything I’d hoped for - plus.

There was no denying that some of the pleasure was the built-up expectation - that feeling you get when you finally visit a dreamscape or see a work of art completed. Or “eat with your eyes first” when viewing a charming tablescape presentation. It all figures into the sensuality and enhances the overall experience..

I couldn’t wait to share the paw-paw: it’s a rare treat “discovery” and yet native stalwart that helped sustain the Native Americans and pioneers. This is such a great backstory of the known and obscure, the native and yet exotic.

At the same time, there wasn’t too much of the fruit to be had. I gave some to my client, after all. In thinking of recipes I could use to show off this native garden star - my thoughts turned to dessert; prompted by the custard consistency I opted for a pudding. I had just made the corn ice cream the week before or I might have created a paw-paw ice cream treat; I think the pulp would work very well in a frozen dessert: sherbet, sorbet, or ice cream. Or just add to cream or as a topping for ice cream - I tried it with the corn ice cream. Wow.

The recipe I decided upon to showcase and celebrate the first paw-paw harvest was a panna cotta. I adapted Giada’s Food Network Panna Cotta recipe. I figured the creamy texture and honey/sugar ingredients balanced out the paw-paw fruit - making it a perfect partner. More pawpaw love.

It was indeed perfect. Light, cool, smooth, with a hint of something tropical. Our guests delighted in the pawpaw treat while I shared the story of this native tree and fruit and its folklore.

So now that I’ve got you yearning for the pawpaw fruit -- my yoga friends were begging where to purchase - the stark reality is it’s just too darn rare to get.

I researched why it’s not available in stores and found confirmation. According to the Georgia Department of Agriculture, “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. 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.”

Yet, I urge you to forage for them if you’re in the pawpaw’s native growing region -- and that is a pretty wide swath. When ripe, the fruit drops to the ground - so look down -- and pick up these beauties while singing “pickin’ up pawpaws” and puttin’ ‘em in your pocket.”

Or grow your own. Pawpaws are pretty much a maintenance-free plant. No fertilizer needed. No real pruning. Just watch the suckers or rhizomes. The Asimina triloba are either a large shrub growing 15-20' tall and are noted for growing in low bottom woods, wooded slopes; near water. My baby is in the sun but shaded somewhat by that now tall river birch -- but the property is on the bay - so the water table is ideal.   

I’m a complete native plant advocate for reasons that have everything to do with beauty, pollinators, environmental sustainability, and not the least - their contribution to what makes gardens interesting and enduring. Gardens shouldn’t all look alike using the same plants just because they’re propagated more readily on a global scale. Seek out natives and you’ll be surprised at what you discover. Pawpaws have a place “in the garden and in the kitchen.” And they’ve made so many people happier.

Pawpaw flower photo courtesy of Carolina Nature

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