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Friday, November 29, 2013

PAW PAW, THE NATIONAL FRUIT OF APPALACHIA!

THE BEST KEPT SECRET IN THE WORLD OF FRUIT
 
 
Paw Paws On The Tree (KY State University)
 
 
When I was growing up in Knott County Kentucky in the 1950's and 1960's, my family regularly ate nearly every fruit, nut, or vegetable we could harvest from wild plants within a few miles of our home.  Some of those items we also planted on our property and regularly harvested and ate their produce in our home.  Some of the plants we regularly kept on our land included hazel nuts, walnuts, beech nuts, hickory nuts, blackberries, raspberries, poke, huckleberries (blueberries for those who do not speak Appalachian English), plantain, and my personal favorite the paw paws.  We had three large trees on our property and both were in our chicken lots which caused us to have to do extra work to protect the fruit from the chickens.  We had two adjoining lots for our chickens and two chicken houses.  One lot was near our pump house and actually had a corner post and gate behind the pump house which was literally at the corner of the building.  We also had a large, heavily bearing paw paw tree about three feet from the gate at the corner of the building which was literally against the woven wire fence.  At fruit bearing time about half of the paw paws fell outside the lot and about half fell inside.  Our other chicken lot, up the hill on the upper side of this first lot had two large, heavily bearing trees in the middle of the lot.  As paw paws began to ripen we would shut all our chickens in the lower lot since having them there would cost us at most about half the fruit from one tree as opposed to all the fruit from two trees.  We would also often shut the chickens in the house at afternoon feeding time and only release them to the lot after we had picked up the fallen fruit in the morning.  We would go to great lengths to protect our fruit.  But I still don't know why the trees had been planted in the chicken lots in the first place.
 
I loved to go with my father, during my childhood, to visit his brother, my Uncle Timothy Hicks, at his home in the head of Bear Fork near Mousie, KY.  Uncle Tim loved paw paws just as much as anyone I ever knew.  He had several trees planted along his backyard fence and ate them every year.  He was also the first person I ever saw who packaged them in the skin and froze them for winter use.  His favorite dessert after a good meal was to go to the freezer and remove a frozen fruit for thawing and eating.  I have tried freezing them myself and never been able to get it right.  We would also go sometimes to other sites where paw paws were known to grow if our own trees were bearing poorly.  That happened about every other year since paw paws are often a hit and miss fruit producer with a heavy year followed by a thin bearing year.  At least once, we went to the head of Bruce at Mousie where my father had grown up and got to see the old farm he grew up on in addition to finding a few paw paws. 
 
But for the uninitiated, I probably need to explain exactly what paw paws are.  The tree is a naturally occurring second growth plant in the entire region of Central or Southern Appalachia.  They grow to about 20 or 30 feet in height in open areas and often occur in clusters since they reseed themselves in a downhill pattern if the fruit is not harvested.  The worst aspect of paw paws in my mind is that they have a short life since they are second growth vegetation.  About 20 to 30 years is a long life for a tree. The scientific name is Asimina triloba.  They begin to bear sometime between 3 to 8 years in age and usually have about a 20 year productive life.  When we first found and rented our home in West Liberty, KY, a large, wonderful, heavily bearing tree was in maturity about 10 feet from our driveway.  When I realized it was there, I knew I was home.  That tree lasted about 10 years after we moved in and eventually bought our house.  It  bore large, sweet, tasty fruit in abundance for most of its life and eventually reached that point where it suddenly ceased to bear and died.  I mourn that tree still today but I keep other young trees descended from it on my property and will to the day I am unable to care for them. 
 
The fruit of the paw paws is a medium green to black in color with black being a stage my father always referred to as "meller". The fruit will be a round cylinder shape with just a bit of tendency to be kidney shaped and large ones will be about 4 to 6 inches in length and about 3 inches in diameter. They are filled with dark brown, kidney shaped, flat seeds about the size of  a large butter bean. The seeds make paw paws a bit of a nuisance to eat since there are at least as many seeds as there is volume of edible pulp.  Each seed is covered in an envelope of edible flesh and between each pair of seeds there is a small area of edible pulp.  I always break mine in half and begin sucking each seed out one at a time, removing the fruit with my tongue & teeth and moving on the next.  About 3 large paw paws will usually serve as a good dessert for me.  But I can also actually make a meal of them eating until I cannot hold anymore.  Average sized fruit are about 3 to 4 inches long and usually less than 3 inches in diameter. The perfect stage at which to eat them is when brown to black spots begin to appear on the skin and the fruit has softened to a consistency about like a ripe tomato.  Paw paws are very hard to describe with regard to flavor.  I frequently hear them described as tasting "just like a banana".  It is my opinion that the same people who describe paw paws this way also describe frog legs as tasting "just like chicken".  It is my opinion that these people in both cases are deficient in at least one of the following: taste discrimination, cooking skills, olfactory skills, or descriptive vocabulary.  I have eaten paw paws since long before I was old enough to remember.  They do not taste like a banana.  They taste "just like paw paws" and nothing else just as well cooked frog legs taste "just like frog legs" and nothing else.  Paw paws have a heavy, heady, fruity odor and taste which is sweet, pungent, mellow, aromatic, and totally unique just as well cooked frog legs have a clean, sweet, mildly fishy, unforgettable taste.  Both will always bring a real eater back to the table time after time, year after year, tree after tree, creek after creek whether they are picking up paw paws or gigging frogs. 
 
Paw paws have been found to be a very nutritious fruit with tremendous commercial potential but no one seems to ever find an effective commercial application for them.  Kentucky State University runs a research project which has been cultivating, cross breeding , preserving and researching paw paws for quite a few years with at least a partial  goal of finding commercial applications for the fruit.  I commend their work wholeheartedly but have sincere doubts that they will ever bring about the existence of commercially productive orchards.  The general public has never bought into paw paws with lasting desire.  But many native Appalachians eat them every year, keep a few trees near the house, and work to preserve them for all time. The KSU website which is very informative can be found at: KY State University Paw Paw Project .
 
I know hundreds of native Appalachians who wait eagerly each year for September and the season for paw paws to ripen.  I have had numerous people raise my stinginess to new levels by asking permission to harvest paw paws from my home trees.  But I would love to see the fruit become the newest in thing in order to ensure their widespread acceptance.  I doubt that this day will ever arrive.  But I will always do my part to protect, propagate, and disseminate the paw paws I love.  I hope you do too. Anyone can feel free to contact me about seeds by mail if interested provided you are willing to pay the shipping and a small fee commensurate to whatever they sell for at the time on E-bay.  And if you have never had them, find your way to Central Appalachia next fall and find a tree so you can say you have tried the National Fruit of Appalachia. 
 


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