Going Native

Reader Contribution by Andrew Weidman
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There’s a hole in our mini orchard. We laid out the back corner of our yard for four little trees: two apples and two pears. Right now, there are three. There’s the Paradise apple, a local antique from Paradise, PA (yes, Paradise really can be found in Pennsylvania, just down the road from Intercourse and Bird-in-Hand — but that’s another blog post entirely). Beside it stands my Ditlow’s Hard Winter, a rescue apple with a provisional name and no known history, one tree of a variety on the brink of oblivion. Catty-corner from the Hard Winter is my Elwood’s Homestead, grafted from an ancient, one-of-a-kind seedling lingering on my parents’ farm. The second pear tree failed. Twice. I think it’s time to take a different tack.

Last weekend, Jessie and I took in the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, PA (more on that in a different post). We sat in on Michael Judd’s “Fruit in the Edible Garden” talk, part of which covered pawpaws.

Pawpaws are an unusual fruit. They grow across the eastern half of the country, from Georgia to just below New England, out to the Middle West and Nebraska, according to Lee Reich. Apparently, the only big-tree fruit native to North America, they’re also from a tropical family, related to cherimoya, custard apples, and soursops. The fruits look like lumps of green Play-Doh, smell like bananas, and can taste like them, too, or maybe melon or mango.

They’re also attractive trees, small and pyramidal with big, tropical-looking leaves, glossy green throughout the summer before turning bright yellow in the fall.

Since we have a hole in the orchard needing to be filled, Jessie suggested giving pawpaws a try. Of course, I thought that was a stellar idea, so now we’re on the market for pawpaws. Sort of.

See, I never do things the easy way. What fun is that? The other three trees I grafted myself. There are two other pears on the property, growing in an espalier on our one shed. Want a challenge? Plant an espalier. Oh, and I grafted them, too. All of my gooseberries and currant bushes? Rooted from cuttings, either by myself, or by friends of mine. And don’t get me started on my potted figs.

I could have bought a pawpaw (two, actually; they need cross-pollination to set fruit), but what would have been the fun in that? Besides, I happen to know where to find a pawpaw that tastes a bit like melon. It’s a grafted variety, growing along the banks of the Union Canal, in a little park in Lebanon. I might have felt bad about “stealing” a fruit from it if its base wasn’t littered with fallen fruits, rotting and returning to the earth.

Pawpaw seeds are tricky. Of course. They can’t freeze, and they can’t dry out. The best way to start a pawpaw, I’m told, is to store the seeds in damp peat moss or a paper towel in the refrigerator for a few months — long enough to forget about them. I tried this once before … and forgot about them. When I found them, they had sprouted, apparently a few months before; the taproots were long and wrapping around the confines of the quart Ziploc baggie. Like other trees with strong taproots, pawpaws are finicky. They will not tolerate having them damaged or stunted. That other batch of seeds was a loss.

I’m trying it again. That pilfered pawpaw gave up nine seeds. I only need two. After I cleaned off the pulp — delicious work I might add — I packed them away in another baggie, in some peat moss, and tucked them in the spare fridge for the winter. Help me remember they’re down there, okay? In the spring, or maybe late winter, when I need a cabin fever antidote, I’ll pot them up in some deep-root pots so their taproots have room to grow. If I manage to get two nice ones to grow, they’ll go in that last empty spot in the orchard. According to Mr. Judd, you can comfortably plant them in pairs with about 18 inches to two feet between them. Let’s see what happens.

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