Paw paw season

In the Garden

Ralph Purkhiser, Purdue University Master Gardener


     Where, O where is little Miss Nellie?  Away down yonder in the paw paw patch.

     Paw paw season is here.  That native fruit that has drawn little attention is now creating quite a stir, as the locavore craze urges people to eat foods that are grown locally.  That is really a necessity when it comes to paw paws.  The fruits do not store well once they are ripe and definitely do not hold up under shipping.  If you want to eat fresh paw paws, you really have to live close to where they grow.  The fruits, when ripe, have a custard consistency and taste somewhat like a banana, earning the nickname of Indiana banana.  Actually, several other states also call them by their respective names, but, be honest, Kentucky banana and Missouri banana just do not have the rhythm of Indiana banana.

     The paw paw is the largest edible tree fruit that is native to North America.  It is one of the most common plants found in the forests of Eastern North America, and is actually becoming even more common.  The reason for this is that paw paw leaves, bark and fruit contain an insecticidal neurotoxin, known as annonacin, which makes them unpalatable to deer and other foragers, and even protects them from most insect pests.  While other understory plants are being consumed by the deer population, paw paws are moving into areas where the deer have cleared out the competition.

     Still, anyone who has gone looking for the fruits knows that they are far from plentiful.  While the plants themselves may be safe from the common foragers, there are many animals that will eat the sweet fruit.  Many will eat them before they are fully ripe, so even fruits observed earlier in the year may be gone by the time one goes back for them when they should be ripe.

     The other reason there are few fruits for the amount of trees found is that paw paws are self-incompatible, meaning that pollination cannot be effective when the pollen comes from the same plant as the flower being pollinated.  That does not appear to be a major problem, as anyone who has seen paw paws knows—they grow in patches.  Actually what appears to be a patch of several small trees is really one plant.  Each of the perceived trees is actually an upright stem from a single root system, so the trees in a patch are not able to pollinate one another.  Therefore, the flies and beetles that pollinate the maroon spring flowers have to travel to other paw paw patches to complete pollination.

     With the paw paw’s new-found popularity, the search is on for new paw paw varieties and improved pollination.  The University of Kentucky has the only full-time paw paw research department, but many other universities are doing studies aimed at improved cultivation.  Farmers are establishing paw paw patches using two or more of the new varieties that have been developed at U of K. 

     Meanwhile, the short-term solution is to process the pulp into frozen or canned pulp.  The pulp can be used to make breads, cookies and other confections.  It is not exactly getting fresh paw paws to consumers, but it has developed a new cash crop for some farms.

     Indiana is definitely in the heart of the paw paw belt.  There is an unincorporated community known as Paw Paw in Miami County and both DeKalb and Wabash Counties have Paw Paw Townships. 

     I have some paw paws growing in the gardens here at Sandhill Gardens, but they are not mature enough to produce a crop.  I am hoping that they will be able to be pollinated from the wild paw paws in the woods near my house and that I can enjoy some fresh fruits in the future.  In the meantime, I will have to search way down yonder in the paw paw patch.



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