Garden Variety: Try the neglected pawpaw, a native Kansas fruit

Take a walk in the woods or visit a farmers market over the next several weeks and you just might find some of one of the few Kansas native tree fruits, the pawpaw, ripe for the picking. Pawpaws are nutritious, have a following for their unique banana-mango-pineapple-y flavor, and have gained considerable attention over the last few decades for their potential for cultivation.

Pawpaw fruits are about the size and shape of a mango, with pale green skin that yellows with maturity. Ripe fruit is firm with a little bit of give to a light squeeze, and the flesh inside is deep yellow to gold with large, dark brown, disc-shaped seeds that are easily removed.

Why the fruit is still a novelty is hard to say, but is probably largely due to the trend of European settlers bringing familiar cultivated fruits and vegetables with them and continuing to cultivate those crops rather than adapt to Native American diets. Pawpaws also have a short harvest season and shelf-life. (They last 2 to 3 days at room temperature or up to a month refrigerated.)

There is variation in fruit flavor and size in seed-grown pawpaw trees. A plant geneticist named Neal Peterson has been working since the late 1970’s to select and develop the most favorable varieties. Kentucky State University also has an extensive pawpaw research program.

After 20 years of searching and evaluation, Peterson has released six cultivated pawpaw varieties: Shenandoah, Susquehanna, Rappahanock, Allegheny, Potomac, and Wabash.

Besides variety selection and development, more work is needed to develop preserved products such as pawpaw jelly and to look more closely at the fruits’ nutritional value.

Pawpaws are easy to grow in a home orchard because they are already adapted to Kansas weather and soil conditions. They have few pests. Some sources recommend planting a minimum of two trees or two varieties for cross-pollination, but researchers are still uncertain if this is true.

Pawpaw trees are an understory species that grows to 35 feet or less in height. The native species suckers and forms colonies, so if you find one pawpaw tree in the woods you are likely to find a small grove. Leaves are 10 to 12 inches long and 4 to 5 inches across with smooth edges and a point at the tip. They are grouped at the ends of the branches and give the tree a tropical look.

Pawpaw flowers appear in early spring and have a distinct smell that is sometimes described as being reminiscent of dirty gym socks. They are pollinated by flies and other insects attracted to the scent.

Deer, raccoons, possums, and other wildlife also consume pawpaws.

— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation. She is the host of “The Garden Show.”