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Native and tasty: The pawpaw tree is making a comeback

J. H. Osborne • Oct 2, 2018 at 11:29 AM

This week's Tuesday Trivia: the pawpaw tree (and how now's your chance to contribute to a good cause by buying one).

Keep Kingsport Beautiful is conducting its Fall Native Tree and Shrub Sale, a fundraiser to support KKB's many environmental programs. The sale features two native trees and a native shrub, including the pawpaw tree ($38 for a three-gallon-potted tree). American persimmon trees are $30 each (one-gallon container). Winterberry holly shrubs are available in both Red Sprite and Jim Dandy varieties. Red Sprite is $38 (three-gallon) and Jim Dandy is $30 (one-gallon). It is recommended to plant one Jim Dandy for up to eight Red Sprite for proper pollination and berry production.

Times News gardening columnist Roy H. Odum II says pawpaws are making a big comeback and are of interest for several reasons.

"They are the host plant for a native swallowtail butterfly and the northern most species of a mainly tropical plant," Odum said. "They're very hardy and deer resistant. And they provide something of interest in each of the four seasons: great spring and summer foliage, interesting brown to red flowers, fruit and yellow foliage in fall, and striking silver bark for winter."

About pawpaws and their sometimes elusive fruit

• "Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is a native small tree that produces a beautiful dark burgundy flower that turns into a three- to five-inch greenish yellow fruit that looks similar to a mango, has the consistency of a banana and tastes like vanilla custard with hints of pineapple. The fruit is especially sweet and can be eaten fresh or used in puddings, pies, and breads."

• Pawpaw trees, which should be spaced about 20 feet and grow to a height of 15 to 20 feet, prefer moist, fertile, deep, slight acidic soils.

The National Park Service has described the pawpaw as "small tree, big impact."

• “With leaves and branches that deer avoid, and fruit that is loved by all, the pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is a fascinating native tree. It’s the only local member of a large, mainly tropical plant family (Annonaceae), and produces the largest edible fruit native to North America.”

• “One of the most tasty late-season rewards for hikers and wildlife alike is the pawpaw fruit, which begins to ripen in late summer and peaks in September and October. The flavor of pawpaw fruit is often compared to bananas, but with hints of mango, vanilla, and citrus. The fruit has the ungainly appearance of a small green potato and may occur in clusters on the tree.”

• “Pawpaw is self-incompatible, which means that pollen produced on a plant cannot pollinate flowers on the same plant. Instead, to produce fruit, a pawpaw flower must receive pollen from flowers on another tree, and sometimes this “other tree” is farther away than it may appear at first glance.”

If you find a tree with fruit

•To determine if the fruits are ripe, lightly shaking a tree will dislodge any ripe fruits that have escaped the notice of local wildlife. Opossums, foxes, squirrels, raccoons and birds are all known to enjoy pawpaw fruit.

From "America’s Forgotten Fruit Tree: The Appalachian Banana," published by Appalachian Magazine:

• "Nineteenth-century American agronomist E. Lewis Sturtevant described pawpaws as '… a natural custard, too luscious for the relish of most people…' "

• "Ohio botanist William B. Werthner noted that 'the fruit … has a tangy wild-wood flavor peculiarly its own. It is sweet, yet rather cloying to the taste and a wee bit puckery – only a boy can eat more than one at a time.' ”

• "The Lewis and Clark Expedition consumed pawpaws during their travels, particularly while traveling via the nation’s rivers."

• "Chilled pawpaw fruit was a favorite dessert of George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson planted it at Monticello, his home in Virginia."

How to order

Pawpaw trees and the other plants in KKB's Fall Native Tree and Shrub Sale may be ordered online through the Kingsport Chamber’s website — https://squareup.com/store/kingsportchamber/ — or in person at the Kingsport Chamber. All orders must be pre-paid, with an order deadline of Oct. 23, 2018. Plants may be picked up on Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018, from 9 a.m. until noon at the Kingsport Farmers Market.

For more information, contact Keep Kingsport Beautiful at (423) 392-8814 or rcleary@kingsportchamber.org.

Sources: Virginia Cooperative Extension at Virginia Tech; National Park Service; Appalachian Magazine; Roy H.Odum II; Keep Kingsport Beautiful.

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