Thanks to a lucky discovery made in Michigan, Tom Fox now grafts and grows pawpaw cultivars on his family’s farm.
Pawpaws ripen on the branch then fall when they’re fit to eat.
Unbelievable as it might be, pawpaws (Asimina triloba) share a tropical ancestor with the banana, are native to northern USDA Plant Hardiness Zones, and are as naturally pest-resistant and hardy for growers as they are delicious and nutritious for consumers. If you’ve never foraged, planted, or tasted a pawpaw, you may think that this native fruit simply doesn’t exist. Well, I’m here to tell you that of the many fruit and vegetable cultivars and varieties that my family grows at Magicland Farms, our banana-like pawpaws are among the most popular.
Even though we farm in a cold climate (Zone 5), we didn’t plant our pawpaws in greenhouses or solariums. Rather, we grow them outside, and, while their DNA is composed of genes that evolved in the tropics, pawpaw trees easily survive in temperatures that drop below zero.
The pawpaw belongs to the custard apple family, which includes tropical delights such as sweetsop, soursop, cherimoya, and, of course, the custard apple, which is the botanical family’s namesake. Pawpaws are also locally known as Michigan bananas, Hoosier bananas, and insert-state-where-they-are-native bananas because their flavor, and in some ways their texture, is reminiscent of the grocery-store-variety banana.
Many years ago, I read Euell Gibbons’ book, Stalking the Wild Asparagus, and, when I got to the chapter on growing and foraging “papaws” (Gibbons’ spelling), I felt tingles travel from my toes to my neck. (Read a vintage "Plowboy interview" with Euell Gibbons on foraging for native wild edibles.) What I read in Stalking the Wild Asparagus indicated that the pawpaw tree was unusual; it bore delicious fruit that wasn’t bothered by bugs or disease, and, perhaps most intriguing of all, it was really a tropical tree that somehow wound up with enough toughness to grow wild in northern USDA Plant Hardiness Zones. (Today, many readers will have a similar experience with Andrew Moore’s Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit.)
After learning that the pawpaw’s native range spreads from northern Florida to southern Ontario, and as far west as eastern Nebraska to eastern Texas, I kept an eye out for it every time I took a walk or drove through a forested area in my native state of Michigan. Sadly, I looked for years without finding even a single pawpaw tree to forage a fruit from. Then, on one warm mid-October day, when my dad and I were looking for a good place to fish along the banks of Michigan’s Muskegon River, I walked right into a pawpaw thicket! The next day, thoughts of fishing faded from my mind, but I still headed back to the river. This time, I carried a camera and (yes, I confess) a shovel. I used a roll of film photographing the beautiful pawpaw trees, and then I calmly dug up an 18-inch-high root sucker from the big pawpaw patch. My only excuse is that I was young and naive.
After moving that bootlegged pawpaw around a bit (and no, it wasn’t to avoid the law), I finally planted it in its permanent home on my family’s Magicland Farms. That tree is now 33 feet tall, has plenty of company, including some grafted named cultivars and others which we grew from seed and it produces fruit of the highest quality. I’ve since named that variety ‘Newaygo’ because the parent tree was located within the city limits of Newaygo, Michigan.
When I started growing pawpaws on my farm, I thought that someday I might sell pawpaw fruit at a farmers market. At the time, few had heard of pawpaws, so I felt it would be a good challenge to my sales talents. I was wrong. It turned out to be more of a challenge to my patience. Customers’ demand for pawpaws quickly exceeded supply, and I’ve been trying to catch up ever since.
Pawpaws are highly nourishing, and many folks find the fruit to be delicious. The yellowish flesh of a perfectly ripened pawpaw is reminiscent of a sweet homemade pudding with natural banana flavor, a bit of pineapple juice, and a pinch of vanilla extract thrown into the mix. Some claim they also detect a hint of mango. In fact, one cultivar of pawpaw was given the name ‘Mango.’ While most pawpaws have a yellowish flesh, sometimes you’ll come across a variety with white flesh. In my opinion, pawpaws with yellow flesh are sweeter and more flavorful than the white-fleshed versions.
An unripe pawpaw is usually dark green, turning lighter green or yellowish-green as it ripens, and then turning brown or even black as it softens. I’ve read books, articles, and blogs that mention waiting for pawpaw fruit to turn an unappetizing black, with its flesh a pudding-like consistency, before eating. I like pawpaws best when about 5 to 15 percent of their skin has turned from a light greenish-yellow to a light brown, and when their flesh retains a bit of firmness. I also use my sense of smell to determine ripeness. If a warm pawpaw doesn’t have a distinctive odor when held close to the nose, it probably isn’t ripe. And like most fruit, pawpaws are best picked when ripe. In Michigan, pawpaws ripen from mid-September through mid-October. If they’re picked in August, they aren’t at all tasty, no matter how long they sit in a fruit bowl.
I believe the pawpaw will become one of the most popular native fruits to be commercially grown in the United States, and that it will someday approach the popularity of the blueberry — another native fruit that at the beginning of the 20th century was only harvested from the wild. Also, I truly believe that the pawpaw is the best native fruit tree to plant in home gardens throughout much of this country because it has great taste, is especially rich in many minerals (magnesium, zinc, iron, copper, manganese), and has amino acids that are hard to find in other fruit. It’s also an attractive, clean tree with large, tropical-looking leaves that turn a gorgeous pure yellow in the fall. A really big benefit for the home fruit tree garden is that pawpaws don’t require the use of synthetic pesticides or herbacides to obtain nearly perfect fruit.
Personally, I have only two regrets regarding my pawpaw plantings. The first regret goes back many years to when I dug up that tiny root sprout without permission. The second regret is even greater: I should have started growing pawpaw trees sooner than I did!
For more details about how to cook and where to find pawpaw, including several pawpaw recipes, festivals, and conferences, visit Kentucky State University’s informative website on pawpaws. And, don’t make the same mistake that I did starting out: Ethically source your pawpaws, whether foraging or planting; and don’t wait — pawpaws are popular now!
Tom Fox owns and operates Magicland Farms near Fremont, Michigan, with his family. When the farm closes in late fall, Tom turns his attention to writing on a variety of topics and designing useful, intriguing electronic gadgets.
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