FROM THE GROUN UP: Pawpaws bring garden club members, friends together

Pawpaw fruits in various stages of processing.
Pawpaw fruits in various stages of processing. PHOTO BY PAMELA BAXTER

Last Saturday, my friend Sharon Richardson reached out to several master gardeners and members of her garden club who live nearby. She also reached out to me. The email subject line read, “The sweet smell of success.” When I walked into Richardson’s house the next day, it was as she had promised: the air was laden with the aroma of pawpaws — sweet, fruity, tropical.

Richardson is Program Chair of The Garden Class of the Uwchlan Women’s Club. The club’s October program is on “Native Plants with Culinary Merit,” including pawpaw, elderberry, and Spring Beauty. Richardson wanted to provide a sample of how the plants can be used in food. She reached out to the speaker, from Tyler Arboretum, for a source for pawpaws, which are now in season.

One of the Arboretum volunteers, currently away from home, gave Richardson permission to go to her property and pick up as many pawpaws as she wanted. Over two days, Richardson harvested over fifty pounds of pawpaws, figuring that this quantity of fruit should be adequate to yield enough pulp so that club members could try recipes using the fruit.

Depending on what state they’re in when gathered off the ground, pawpaws have a shelf life of only two to three days. The amount of fruit Richardson had collected required immediate help in processing. That’s where I and the rest of the relief crew came in.

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We quickly fell into an assembly-line process, with two people peeling and cutting the fruits and two dealing with the seeds. The most painstaking and time-consuming part ended up being separating the seeds from the close-fitting, slippery membrane surrounding them.

In a couple of hours, we managed to get through about half of the fruits. “Reinforcements” showed up a little later in the day and helped finish the job. The result is that Richardson now has over thirty-two cups of pulp. (That’s after the rest of us each took home a cup or two to experiment with cooking projects.)

Since learning of the opportunity to harvest pawpaws, Richardson has been scouring the Internet, looking for tips on how to germinate the seeds, of which she now has hundreds. (She had the idea that club members could start seedlings to sell at their spring plant sale.) Some of the advice varies, but two things are certain: the seeds need to go through the process of “stratification” — mimicking outdoor winter conditions — and they need to be kept moist.

Moisture is essential; without it, the seeds will die. With that requirement met, about four months of cold is required to break the dormancy period and allow the seeds to germinate when transferred to a warm environment. Thus, it will be a long time before Richardson knows if she’s achieved success.

Constant moisture and cold temperature is easily provided by placing seeds in a plastic bag with damp sphagnum moss. Keep the bag in the refrigerator for four months, misting the moss occasionally to keep moist.

After germination, it’s important to provide adequate room for seedling development, which means room to accommodate a surprisingly large taproot. An article from the Kentucky State University recommends containers 2” x 2” by 10”. The taproot grows deep but the root system is fragile, so it’s essential to find a shady, permanent spot for the transplants. Digging up even a young tree will kill it. (Germination and transplanting information from http://www.pawpaw.kysu.edu/PDF/PomperHT03c.pdf)

And then you wait eight years for the tree to start producing fruit.

Because of the soft, ephemeral nature of the fruit, it is recommended for use in desserts, such as custard and ice cream, and in recipes that call for mashed bananas, such as banana bread. Members of the garden club are signing up to take some of the fruit and experiment with recipes.

Many thanks to Richardson for expanding my experience with pawpaws and giving me something new to explore.

Note: The Garden Club Federation of Pennsylvania Flower Show is this Saturday, Sept. 23 (1 - 6 p.m.) and Sunday, Sept. 24 (9 a.m. - 6 p.m.) at Longwood Gardens. The show is sponsored by five District I clubs: Country Gardeners, Four Seasons GC, Garden Club of Springfield, Garden Class of the Woman’s Community Club of Uwchlan and Spade & Trowel Club. The show is open to the public through admission to Longwood Gardens (longwoodgardens.org).

Pam Baxter is an avid organic vegetable gardener who lives in Kimberton. Direct e-mail to pamelacbaxter@gmail.com, or send mail to P.O. Box 80, Kimberton, PA 19442. Join the conversation at “Chester County Roots,” a Facebook page for gardeners in the Delaware Valley. Go to Facebook, search for Chester County Roots, and “like” the page. To receive notice of updates, click or hover on “Liked” to set your preferences.