Walk in the West Virginia woods in September and you may find a sweet treat that many old-timers who grew up in the Mountain State remember fondly from their youth.
In the understory and the edges of the forest, patches of short trees with large leaves hold oddly-shaped, green and brown fruits that don’t look particularly appetizing. If you’re lucky, you can pick a few for a snack or several to take home before the wildlife eat them all.
What is this sweet treat, you ask? It’s pawpaws! Of course, if you are younger person or have been a city-dweller all your life you may not know what that is.
Pawpaws are a native fruit that grows throughout the woods in the eastern U.S. The scientific name (Asimina triloba) comes from the Native American term assimin and Latin for three referencing the three petals on the brown, nondescript flowers of the tree that have a slight rotten smell to attract pollinating flies.
The pawpaw was a favorite plant of many Native American tribes. The Spanish explorer de Soto noted the consumption of pawpaws in 1541. I’ve also heard theories that it was Native Americans who spread the pawpaw so thoroughly and quickly throughout the east after the last ice age, since there weren’t any surviving animals that would have done so.
Other names for the fruit are custard apple or the West Virginia banana, which come from both its custard-like texture and similarity to the flavor of bananas. The fruit is full of large, brown seeds that usually get in the way of eating them. I’ve found that there are two types of people: those who love pawpaws and those who detest them.
While you can eat them while they are still green, many people don’t consider them ripe until they are almost completely brown. While they may look rotten, the custard flesh on the inside is so smooth you can eat it with a spoon.
The trees generally grow in groves or patches in the woods. Pawpaws are very good at vegetative propagation — they’ll send out new trees from the roots. Basically, many patches end up being all the same tree. They’re all connected and they are all genetic clones of each other. This presents a problem, since the trees have a mechanism where they are self-incompatible when it comes to pollination. Since most or all of the trees in a patch can be the same tree, they can’t cross pollinate. There have to be other trees nearby.
Last week I had the pleasure of accompanying a videographer and photographer from the Gazette-Mail to visit a lady growing pawpaws in her back yard. It turns out that the lady was my neighbor, only a half block away from my Kanawha City home. I would have never guessed there were pawpaw trees so close to me.
Pawpaw trees do make nice, attractive trees for the landscape. They are usually less than 20 feet tall, so they aren’t going to grow uncontrollably or take up large amounts of space. Since they are understory or forest edge trees, which grow under the taller trees or at the forest edge, they would do well mixed with other similar trees such as dogwoods or redbuds.
While we were meeting with the owner of the trees, photographer Kenny Kemp and I were talking about how to start and grow the trees. He has some on his property, but they don’t produce well, most likely because his patch is made up mostly of clones of one tree. Therefore, starting new trees and planting them nearby would greatly increase his pawpaw production.
However, there’s a trick to starting pawpaws (and many native trees/plants) and it has to do with giving the seeds a cold treatment. The process, called stratification, is a way to break the dormancy of some seeds of plants native to areas with cold winters. Dormancy is built into the seeds to keep them from germinating before winter, when the tender sprouts are more likely to get killed by the cold.
Of course, if you are a gambling person who has lots of seeds, you could just plant them outdoors in the fall and let nature do its work. You usually end up with plenty of seeds, since pawpaws generally have more seeds than flesh. You might get slightly more success by planting them in pots and insulating them with straw mulch. However, to have the highest likelihood of success, you’ll want to treat the seeds with a controlled stratification process.
To stratify the seeds, place the cleaned seeds in a plastic bag or sealable container with moistened peat moss or vermiculite. Store them for at least 60-90 days at 35-40 degrees. The refrigerator would be a great place to store them — stick them in the back, out of the way. Just make sure they don’t freeze. Alternately, you could put them in an unheated garage or storage building that stays around the same temperature (but does not freeze), though the fridge is the best bet. This simulates being buried in the soil through the winter.
In early spring, remove the seeds from their containers and soak in water for a day or two. Sow the seeds three inches deep in a large (around 2-gallon pot). You can start them in smaller containers, but you have to move them quickly to accommodate the tap root.
Since pawpaws grow in shaded areas, the seedlings need to be in a shaded area for the first two years. However, they will produce better if they are in a sunny location when they are older. So either plant them in a partially-shady area where they will get enough sun when they are older, or plant them in a sunny area and provide shade with a cover for the first two years.
If that all sounds like too much, you may be lucky and find seedlings to dig up around the pawpaw patch. Just remember that you may need to find seedlings from two different patches to assure that they are not genetic clones. You also want to have permission from the landowner and remember that it is illegal to remove anything from a state or national park or forest.
I was so happy to get some pawpaws from the visit to my neighbor. I turned mine into a pawpaw meringue pie for a family reunion over the weekend. Now, my task is to stratify some seeds to grow seedlings next year. I know just the spot where I’ll plant it. Lucky for me, the neighbor’s tree is close enough for cross pollination.
This week in the garden
n Seed lettuce and salad greens in high tunnel
n Repot houseplants for winter
n Take a fall soil test in the garden and lawn
n Harvest early planted sweet potatoes
n Water young trees and shrubs during dry periods
n Celebrate the beginning of autumn
John Porter is the WVU Extension Service agent for agriculture and natural resources in Kanawha County.