Along the paths of the wilderness quarter at Bartram’s Garden, North America’s largest edible fruit grows on the delicate limbs of the Pawpaw Tree. You won’t find this fruit in the produce aisle at your local grocery store: it’s far too delicate to transport and its seasonality make it a rare find. And there is guaranteed competition for the delicious fruit of this tree: possums, raccoons, squirrels, and even birds are known to devour them.
The fruit itself is sweet and highly nutritious. It has a unique exotic flavor that resembles a combination of banana, mango, and pineapple. Early European explorers in the United States learned about the Pawpaw from Native Americans, who knew about eating and cultivating the fruit. The Pawpaw even saved Lewis & Clark from starvation on their journey westward.
Bartram’s Garden has two Pawpaw patches. They are found growing in the dappled shade of taller trees. Over time, the trees have formed colonies by sending out suckering roots genetically identical to the parent tree. The Pawpaw tree does not only provide fruit for us but is also a host plant for the zebra swallowtail caterpillar. The caterpillars like to munch specifically on Pawpaw leaves, and in return, eating Pawpaw leaves makes the caterpillars taste bad to the hungry birds that might otherwise eat them.
In early spring, just as the trees begin to leaf out, the Pawpaw’s maroon upside-down bell-like flower will emerge, typically between March and May. Each flower is capable of producing several fruits, but they’ll need to be pollinated first. In order to set fruit, they’ll need to be cross-pollinated by a genetically different tree or colony, and that is why we have two Pawpaw patches. Expect the pale green fruit to start turning a yellow hue in the fall. The longer they ripen, the tastier they will be––if the wildlife doesn’t find them first.