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8/21/2006

Pickin' Up Pawpaws

Ozarks Gardening newspaper column
Copyright© Jim Long, 2006

It's pawpaw picking time! If you walk along the lake, or in deep valleys where there's moisture in the soil, you will likely smell something sweet, something not quite melon like, not quite like a banana, but fragrant and enticing. Pawpaws, when they are ripe, give off a pleasant, sweet odor that you can smell for considerable distance. But if you want pawpaws, you have to go now, because that same fragrance that you smell in the air, is also attractive to lots of woodland animals.

Squirrels,'possums, raccoons and probably bear and wild hogs, will try and beat you to the pawpaw patch. That's why it's best to find the fruit early, then shake a few off the trees and let them ripen at home.

Pawpaws are the largest native fruit in North America. They grow in 26 of our 50 states, in Zone 5 through 8, from Florida to Ontario, westward to Kansas and Oklahoma. And even though they are found over a large area, many people wouldn't know a pawpaw if it jumped over their feet.

Lewis and Clark, in their journals, wrote about how welcome the fruit of the pawpaw was for the voyagers. Indians ate it in the fall, and likely were responsible for spreading the seed of the tree across its now large range. Pawpaws are about the size of a slender potato, about 6 or 7 inches long, and two or three inches in diameter. Generally the fruit weighs from four to eight ounces and grows in clusters of two to five pawpaws in one spot.

The trees do well as a landscape tree and actually produce more fruit in a sunny location than in shade. But when left to their own habits, pawpaw trees grow in full shade as an under story tree, usually along river banks, in deep valleys and beneath bluffs. The trees bloom in very early spring with maroon, not very noticeable flowers. They are pollinated by flies, and to aid pollination, those who grow stands of pawpaws often hang rotting meat in the trees to encourage more flies.

Pawpaws have a short shelf life, meaning if you pick a green one today and put it on the kitchen countertop, it will be ready to eat in about two days, but will be past its peak in four or five days. When it's ripe the outside of the fruit will have turned black, like a very ripe banana, and it will be quite fragrant.

The flavor has been described as between vanilla pudding and a banana or cantaloupe. Some varieties have a slight pineapple flavor, and all have a custard-like texture.

The trees never produce heavy crops like apple or pear trees do, but the amount of fruit can be increased considerably if you have another variety, or even another pawpaw tree that is not directly related to the first one. Pawpaws are good in milkshakes, are a good ingredient for cakes, muffins, pies, custards and puddings. Or, they are delicious eaten fresh, just peel them and pick out the seeds (which are the size of kidney beans and easy to pick out). If you want a real Ozarks treat, the season for pawpaws will last only about ten days, so pick yourself some pawpaws.

Happy Gardening. Questions and comments welcome at Lcherbs@interlinc.net, and at www.Longcreekherbs.com.

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