From the ground up: It’s harvest time for pawpaw

March 28, 2014 | 8:09 pm

This is a time of abundance when it comes to local food. For proof, just check out the listings at the end of this column. There are several events that involved tasting and celebrating local food in Iowa. Yesterday, I had local sweet potatoes and sweet corn with a pasta dish containing local tomatoes, onions, hot peppers and garlic. In my fridge, waiting for another meal are local eggplant, beets, bell peppers, kale, watermelon and zucchini. Soon, I will have some Iowa grown pawpaws. Don’t know what that is? Patrick O’Malley, Iowa State University Extension outreach commercial horticulture specialist, will fill you in.

Q: What is Pawpaw?

A: Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is the largest tree fruit native to the United States. This fruit, known commonly as the “poor man’s banana,” may reach more than a pound in weight. Pawpaws grow wild in the hardwood forests of 25 states in the eastern United States, ranging from northern Florida to southern Ontario (Canada) and as far west as eastern Nebraska. In Iowa, it is found in the southeast and southwest parts of the state. Pawpaw is the only temperate member of the Annonaceae family, which includes the delectable tropical fruits, sweetsop, soursop and atemoya.

Pawpaw is a small, deciduous tree that may grow 15 to 30 feet high and 8 to 10 feet wide. In the forest understory, pawpaw trees often exist in clumps or thickets, which may result from root suckering or seedlings developing from fruit that dropped to the ground from an original seedling tree. In sunny locations, trees typically assume a pyramidal shape, straight trunk and lush, dark-green, long, drooping leaves that turn gold and brown during fall. Leaves occur alternately and may be 10 to 15 inches long and 3 to 5 inches wide.

The maroon colored flowers emerge before leaves in mid-spring and may reach up to 1 1/2 inches in diameter. A single pawpaw tree rarely will produce fruit. It is best to have a second tree close by to ensure a fruit crop. Pollination is by flies, beetles and butterflies. Fruit set in the wild is usually low and may be pollinator — or resource-limited, but under cultivation, tremendous fruit loads have been observed in Iowa and other states.

Fruit are typically 1 to 5 inches long, 1 to 4 inches wide, and weigh between 1 to 20 ounces. They may be borne singly or in clusters that resemble the “hands” of a banana plant. This highly aromatic fruit has a ripe flavor that resembles a creamy mixture of banana, mango and pineapple and can replace banana in many recipes. Generally they ripen from early September through early October. The fruit is nutritious and compares well with apples and oranges (a new study on its nutritional content is currently being conducted). When ripe, skin color ranges from green to yellow, and the flesh ranges from creamy white to bright yellow or shades of orange. Shelf life of a tree-ripened fruit stored at room temperature is two to three days. With refrigeration, fruit can be held up to two weeks while maintaining good eating quality. Within the fruit, there are two rows of large, brown, bean-sized, laterally compressed seeds that may be up to an inch long.

Q: Where can I get more information on Pawpaw?

A: Kentucky State University has been in the forefront in pawpaw research and has been the lead school in the Pawpaw Regional Variety Trial. It also maintains a website for pawpaw information at Pawpaw.kysu.edu. I have grown pawpaws at a trial site in Louisa County for 15 years.

Q: Where can I find Pawpaws?

A: You can find pawpaw fruits, while in season here:

EVENTS

Questions on gardening, land use or local foods? Contact Michelle Kenyon Brown, community ag programs manager at Linn County Extension, mkenyonb@iastate.edu.

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