The Real Pawpaw

I didn’t know what the native pawpaw was until 3 years ago. Maybe I’m a little slow with this: I didn’t even know it existed. Did you imagine that southern Ontario was home to a ‘tropical fruit’?

I thought the pawpaw was a very different fruit not realizing that the papaya, a popular fruit of central-American origin, is sometimes given the misnomer ‘pawpaw’. This gave rise to the fruity confusion. Some disambiguation is needed: the papaya (Carica papaya) is not even from the same tree family as the pawpaw (Asimina triloba). The real pawpaw is a native, eastern North American, temperate, fruit tree bearing sweet banana-meets-mango fruit* that is very rare in Ontario but grows wild in the southern Carolinian eco-zone.

Pawpaw is Canada’s largest native fruit – and a marvel of nature because a tropical fruit tree evolved hardiness to expand it’s range further and further northward to eventually withstand a southern Ontario winter.

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The form could be shrub-like or single-stem 20ft tree like this one. The pawpaw fruit are found hiding under the leaves

Where do you find pawpaw? There are still some wild stands in the Niagara peninsula. Was the Altona Forest area once host to this delicious fruit? It would be speculation, but the lake-effect warmth, sheltered sunny valleys, and fertile soils would likely have seen one or two pawpaws grow in the Carolinian areas near the protected shores and valleys of Lake Ontario that are now Rouge National Park and Altona Forest (Petticoat Creek watershed). Since the last ice age is still retreating, could this tree’s northern ‘migration’ be naturally continuing?

Though once common, pawpaws were almost lost to their native Canadian range with the construction of towns and cities on the fertile lands where they grew. The shores of Lakes Erie and Ontario are protective and temperate – and now very developed. Pawpaws fell to progress. Since these areas are the tree’s northern-most range, there would have been fewer trees to begin with since the winters challenged them – and since they need at least one other tree to cross pollinate with, a single tree would have little chance of repopulating an area.

The problem with pawpaws is that they don’t do well as a fruit to take to market – they bruise, their natural black spots don’t look appetizing, they have very thin skins, and they go bad within a couple of days of being picked. This propensity for spoilage made them seep from the collective consciousness, though their history includes being used regularly and prized by the first nations and then settlers.

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Ripe pawpaw fruit such as these don’t look appetizing – but looks are deceiving

If you are quick-acting, lucky, and live in Toronto or Ajax, you can buy two native pawpaw trees for your garden through Your Leaf. There are limited quantities. Sadly Pickering doesn’t participate in the Your Leaf program. You will need a pair of trees because they will need to cross-pollinate to provide fruit – of course you and your neighbour can each plant one as long as they are only about 15 feet apart according to Your Leaf.  And since the tree is a suitable city-garden size of 20ft tall at maturity, it will fit well into many urban settings. If you grow one, save me some seeds please.

There are some challenges to growing pawpaws since the Altona Forest area is pushing the northern edge of the range. You will need to find a sunny, protected spot that gets ample water. If you are starting from seed, their seeds cannot dry before planting. So if you eat a fruit, put the seeds into a ziplock bag with a damp paper towel and plant it as soon as possible. (If you’re not planting them, offer the seeds to others as they are in demand and a tree that produces sweet fruits will have off-spring that offer that same sweetness.)

For butterfly lovers the pawpaw offers one final draw: it is the host plant for zebra swallowtail butterflies and a sure way to draw them to your garden!

In my annual winery tours of Niagara, I will definitely be sourcing some pawpaws to try! There is a resurgence in interest, awareness, and cultivation of this native fruit. Just imagine the delicious food you can collect from your own garden for your table – and I’m sure wildlife from the area would be only too happy to help you with any ‘lost’ fruit!

 

*I have to admit (very sadly) that I have seen but not yet tasted an Ontario pawpaw. The ones I photographed above were on private property. I have read many accounts of what it tastes like and am going with the banana/mango description though others say it tastes a little like melon or custard since it’s from the custard apple family. They also smell heavenly – a sweet scent with hints of pineapple, guava, or banana. If you’ve tasted one, please add a comment about it’s sweetness, colour, flavour and texture!

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Leaves of the pawpaw in fall     (Image ~ Pixabay)

Resources ~ Begin Your Reading Here

Pawpaw Overview (University of Texas at Austin)

Planting Guide – Pawpaws (Kentucky State U information)

Tasting Pawpaws in Ontario

Native Pawpaws

Sourcing Pawpaws for Your Garden

Pawpaw Plant Profile (USDA)

Pawpaw Growing Conditions

Planting My Pawpaw

Enjoying Pawpaws (USA information)

Foraging for Pawpaws (US information)

Pawpaw Photo Gallery

‘America’s Forgotten Fruit’

About Pawpaw (US video)

A Pawpaw Grove (US video)

Your Table ~ Got Pawpaws?

The Real Pawpaw ~ © 2016 Natasha G

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