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Rhonda Ferree's ILRiverHort

Rhonda Ferree's Horticulture Blog
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Pawpaw


Last weekend my husband and I went camping in Southern Illinois with a group of friends. We hiked in Shawnee National Forest and visited some wineries. It was great fun!

While hiking at the Illinois Audubon Society's War Bluff Sanctuary, we passed several large groves of pawpaw trees. This beautiful native tree is usually found as an understory plant in cool, moist areas along streams. I first found it in my Mom and Dad's woodland along a little stream behind their house on the Fulton/Schuyler county line.

The plant has many nice features. As a small understory tree, it only grows 15 to 20 feet tall and wide. It prefers moist, well-drained soils and will grow in shade to full sun. The large leaves are eye-catching, droopy and 6 to 12 inches long, and turn a beautiful golden yellow in fall.

Flowers are interesting as well. Looking like little 1 ½ inch purple bells along the stem, the flowers emerge from hairy, brown buds before the leaves in April and May. All buds on this plant have a silky, brown look and feel to them.

Flowers turn into edible fruit that is two to five inches long and look like mangos or short, fat bananas. Animals love the tasty fruit, so they are often hard to find.

The fruit starts out green, then turns yellow, eventually ripening to brown or black. The unique flavor of the fruit resembles a blend of various tropical flavors, including banana, pineapple, and mango. The flavor and custard-like texture make pawpaws a good substitute for bananas in almost any recipe. Since I don't like bananas, I have never tried pawpaws. My parents have though and said they were so-so. They probably just needed the proper preparation technique.

The Kentucky State University Cooperative Extension Program has a large website on pawpaws. They say that the pawpaw is the largest edible fruit that is native to the United States and that most enthusiasts agree that the best way to enjoy pawpaws is to eat them raw, outdoors, picked from the tree when they are perfectly ripe. But there are also numerous ways to use them in the kitchen and extend the enjoyment of their tropical flavor beyond the end of the harvest season.

Besides being a great native plant, the pawpaw is also the only host plant for the gorgeous zebra swallowtail butterfly. The zebra swallowtail larvae only feed on pawpaw plants. These are impressive butterflies with long tails, wings striped in white and black, and a wingspan of 2 ½ to 4 inches.

Now for the bad news - it does like to grow in groves. In Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs book Dirr says it "will sucker and produce colonies that make an almost eerie, enchanted-forest quality." Sounds like pawpaws would make a Halloween spook house setting!



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