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Pickin’ up pawpaws in Salisbury

“Pickin’ up pawpaws, put ‘em in your pocket,

Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch…”

By Celeste G. Ward

For the Salisbury Post

As much as I sang this little song as a child, I did not learn until later in my “mature” years that pawpaws can grow on a tree, not always on a bush or necessarily in a patch. And we have one in the back yard that actually produced fruit last week.

Way back when in 2003, for Mother’s Day, I planted a pair of Stella cherry trees for myself (aka Mimi). And for Father’s Day, I planted a pair of All-American pawpaw trees in honor of my husband Bill (aka Pawpaw). The new trees were shipped as bare root plants about half the height and width of a yard stick. At first glance, I wondered if they were really alive.

According to the various nursery and seed catalogs I get, both types of trees must be planted in multiples in order to cross-pollinate, and it takes about five years to produce fruit.

So we watched and waited. But alas, for whatever unknown twist of fate, around 2006, one of each variety just up and died, leaving two widowed fruit trees in the backyard – one pawpaw and one cherry.

Over the years, the cherry tree grew taller but scrawnier and never produced any fruit. A pawpaw tree can be grown in sun or shade, and ours seems to like the bright sunshine. It is now lush, mature, 20 feet high with large full leaves, but still could not grow the dark purple flowers needed to eventually produce fruit – until now and probably via some botanical version of immaculate conception.

After one our area’s recent and welcomed rain showers, I was looking across the back yard at what looked like a fresh crop of those ivory colored mushrooms – toadstools – fungi growths that voluntarily pop up after it rains.

But especially without my glasses, these things somehow look different. So I found my glasses, put on some shoes and walked out across the still-wet grass or, in some areas, prolific green weeds. I was stunned to discover that three pawpaws had fallen off of our supposedly barren tree. Hey, since I’m not exactly a green thumb gardener, this is a big deal.

Depending on the location, a pawpaw is sometimes called a Michigan banana, a West Virginia banana, or an American custard apple, theoretically because traditional banana trees grow in much hotter climates.

According to several horticulture articles I researched, there are about seven pawpaw members of the genus Asimina growing in southeastern states. However, because of their extremely short shelf life of only about 36 hours, pawpaws are nearly impossible to grow for mass production and transport.

A pawpaw is an oval-shaped, light greenish-yellow fruit that looks like a small oblong honeydew. The skin is smooth, much like a nectarine, but not quite as thick as that of a banana.

Pawpaws are said to be rich in minerals such as magnesium, copper, zinc, iron, manganese, potassium and phosphorus. The fruit also contains an abundance of vitamin C and protein. Some can weigh up to one pound, but mine were much smaller, at about 4 ounces each and about the size of a lime.

To open them, simply slice them lengthwise like an avocado. Instead of one large pit, they have three to six black seeds about the size of your thumb nail. After removing the seeds, the inside easily scoops out, yielding about a quarter cup of creamy custard-like fruit tasting somewhat like banana pudding with a hint of cantaloupe or mango. Strange but true.

I have eaten the fruit right from the skin. I have also concocted a pawpaw-coconut smoothie blending (yes, in the blender on high speed):

1 pawpaw (scooped out insides only)

1 5.3 ounce container of coconut-flavored Greek yogurt

1/4 cup orange juice

1 tablespoon honey

1 cup of ice cubes

You can also substitute your own favorite yogurt flavor to produce a tropical colada. Not bad, not bad at all. Next time I may even add the rum.

PS: I am going to try to grow more trees from the seeds collected. Given that it will probably take another decade to see any results, you may not hear any pawpaw news from me for some time. I’ll keep you posted.

Celeste Ward is a writer and photographer living in Salisbury with her husband, Bill, and an array of rescued pets … and a pawpaw tree.

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