I have never tasted a paw paw fruit, but I hope to remedy that as soon as possible.
The thought of growing a tropical fruit in my own backyard is intriguing. With the push toward more locally grown food, not just to save fuel and transportation costs, but to be able to get the freshest food possible for our plates, it makes sense that as gardeners we would turn to growing more local fruits.
In early spring, we can get the first fruits beginning with rhubarb, although not really a fruit since the part we eat is a stem. Botanically, a fruit is a seed container. Even strawberries are not technically fruits, since they carry their seeds inside tiny cases on the outside of the swollen, red stems we call strawberries. Those small black cases are called achenes and are not the seeds. The seeds are inside, making the achenes the real fruit.
Other fruits we enjoy in our neighborhoods include, cherries, apples, grapes, pears and peaches. But what I think I would miss the most if I gave up eating fruit that traveled across the world is bananas. I can't help it, I like bananas. I like them plain, mashed up in my breakfast oatmeal and sauteed lightly in maple syrup. I like them in sweet bread with chopped walnuts, and I like them in ice cream and cookies.
The remedy, I am told, is in the fruit of the native Ohio paw paw tree. This fruit is described as tasting quite similar to bananas, but with a unique and complex flavor and a lingering, but not unpleasant, aftertaste. The aroma of the ripening fruit also is said to permeate the air with a fruity and floral fragrance. I can't speak from experience about the flavor or the fragrance, although I know that there are paw paw trees at Secrest Arboretum in Wooster, where I have been several times, but evidently not in the paw paw grove during fruiting season.
But while browsing the 2010 Burpee gardening catalog, I came across a section named ''Specialty Fruits,'' and there, along with hardy kiwi and honeyberries, is the paw paw collection. The description states the fruit tastes like sweet bananas. For $39.95, I can order two trees, which I understand is necessary for proper pollination. Our editor, who said he once ate a paw paw when he was young, described the texture as similar to a ripe pear. It piques my interest enough to tempt me to try a couple trees in my own yard.
But first a little research.
According to the Purdue University Extension Service's Department of Horticulture (Indiana's version of our Ohio State University Extension Service), paw paws, or Annonaceae triloba, is the only member of the Annonaceae family that will grow in temperate zones. The Annonaceae family of plants is primarily tropical and is more commonly known as the custard apple family of trees and shrubs. Also related to this family is the herb, ylang ylang, which is not edible, but was trendy a few years ago for its aromatic scent and its use in perfume-making.
If I had to describe it in layman's terms, I would say that the Paw Paw is probably the closest thing to a tropical fruit that we can grow, if you don't count the hardy kiwi, which I have tried to grow, but evidently doesn't like living in my yard.
The paw paw tree grows anywhere from 12 to 20 feet. Like many smaller trees, they produce root suckers, but unlike others, these suckers are not generally successful for propagating new plants. The tree grows naturally as an understory plant where tender saplings are can be protected from heavy winter winds and the heat of a mid-summer sun. Adult trees, however, prefer full sun. Some growers will protect the young trees with shade cloth until they mature enough to handle the heat. They don't mind growing in heavy soil, but will not survive if there isn't adequate drainage.
According to Purdue, the tree will begin to bloom and start fruit production when it reaches 6 feet in height. The tree is deciduous, meaning it will drop its leaves at the end of summer and it requires at least 400 hours of below freezing temperatures to break dormancy in spring. The flowers are not self-pollinating, but not because they are either male or female. The flowers are ''protogynous,'' meaning by the time the pollen ripens, the female reproductive part, or stigma, has already ripened and is no longer able to be fertilized. For this reason, many growers hand-pollinate their plants with a small brush or will plant more than one variety.
According to the Ohio Paw Paw Growers Association, Better Homes and Gardens voted the pawpaw the landscape tree of the year 2000. That clinches it for me. paw paw is on my list for this spring's must-have for my garden. I'll let you know how it goes.