Want to grow a “tropical” fruit in a temperate climate? Try a pawpaw (or “Hoosier banana,” as it is sometimes called), the northernmost member of the custard apple family and cousin to the cherimoya and soursop. The 10- to 25-foot trees (Asimina triloba) are native to woodlands from New York to Georgia and west to Nebraska, but their lush, drooping leaves give them an exotic appeal. The smooth, creamy fruits taste something like a banana with hints of mango and pineapple. They often weigh as much as a pound apiece.
You can grow pawpaws if you live within Zones 5 through 8. They are small, deciduous trees with purple flowers. The flowers aren’t very prominent, but they do appear late enough in spring to escape frosts. Plant the trees in well-drained soil and be sure to dig a hole deep enough to accommodate their long taproots. You’ll probably get the most fruits from a tree planted in full sun, but pawpaws are woodland natives, so light shade is okay, too, especially in the first year or two. Be patient—the trees grow slowly at first.
For the best fruits, plant ‘Overleese’, ‘Mitchell’, ‘Taytwo’, or ‘Sunflower’, advises the PawPaw Foundation, which promotes research and development of pawpaw cultivars. Plant at least two different varieties to ensure good fruiting. As further insurance, you could hand-pollinate the flowers with an artist’s brush: Dust the brown pollen from one plant’s flowers onto the shiny green, ripe stigmas of another. (In the wild, beetles and flies pollinate pawpaw flowers, but you may not have enough of these natural pollinators around to do the job for you.)
Pawpaws taste best if harvested when their yellowish skins become speckled with brown, a sign of full ripeness. For milder flavor, pick slightly underripe fruits and allow them to finish ripening indoors at room temperature. Delay ripening by storing them in the refrigerator before setting them out to ripen. Each mature tree will yield about 25 to 50 pounds of fruits a season.
The “proper” way to eat a pawpaw is to cut it in half and scoop out the flesh with a spoon, but the fruit is just as tasty if you peel back the skin and eat it like a banana. If you decide to cook your pawpaws, don’t go overboard on sweetener or you’ll steal their naturally good flavor.
Photo: (cc) Frank Enstoen/Flickr