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A passion for the pawpaw.

plant family Annonaceae Custardapple) that is adapted to temperate climates. All its relatives-which include cherimoya, soursop, custard apple, and ilana-grow in the tropics or subtropics. Several forms of pawpaw are recognized in the eastern and southern United States. Asimina parviflora grows like a shrub from southeastern Virginia to the Gulf Coast. Six other shrubby Asimina species grow in Florida, But the common American pawpaw, Asimina triloba, is the only true temperate species, and it ranges from Florida to Texas, north to northern New York and even into southern Ontario, and westward to Michigan, Illinois, southern lowa, and southeast Nebraska.

But it is the pawpaw's fruit that attracts uS. Quite unlike any other temperate fruit that we are accustomed to, its flavor resembles a cross between a banana and a mango or pear. The creamy pulp melts in the mouth and has an exquisite taste. The fruit is filled with shiny black seeds and can weigh up to a pound. When pawpaw fruit begin to ripen, their aroma can be detected for quite a distance. Generally, the fruits are not eaten until they are dead ripe on the tree and the outer skin begins to turn blackish.

How did the pawpaw get where it is? Some believe that the tree was deliberately moved northward by native Indians during their migrations. We know that the pawpaw, sometimes called Indian banana, was a favorite fruit of Indians. They not only ate the fruit but also used the tree's inner bark to make fabrics and rope. Pawpaw fibers have been found in prehistoric materials from Indian diggings in Kentucky, Ohio, Arkansas, and Wisconsin.

Neal Peterson is not the first champion of the pawpaw. As far back as 1905, individuals pointed to the potential of the pawpaw as a cultivated fruit. The American Genetic Association held a contest in 1916 and offered a $100 reward for information about the largest pawpaw tree and the best fruit. Grassroots support for the pawpaw was evident from the numerous respondents from all areas of the tree's natural range. Seventy-five fruit samples and over 230 reports of superior trees were received.

The fruit judged best, sent by Mrs. Frank Ketter, was from a tree that grew in the hills of Lawrence County in southern Ohio. Another contestant, a Mr. Mooney from Martinsville, Ohio, described the pawpaw as "a little cowardly when growing in company with other forest trees that crowd it out or shade it too much." Benjamin Buckman from Farmingdale, Illinois, attached a note to his fruit which read: "I had to pack this box in an outhouse and wash my hands and face thoroughly in soapy water, because one or two in my family are affected by ripe pawpaw as badly as by the most virulent poison ivy I have ever seen." Pawpaw toxicity has been confirmed, but cases are rare.

The first attempts to select and breed pawpaw followed the Journal of Heredity's contest. Eminent botanist and plant explorer Dr. David Fairchild raised seedlings from the winning trees and selected superior individuals. Offspring were used by Dr. G. A. Zimmerman of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, who hybridized A. triloba with A. obovata and A. longifolia with the ultimate goal of achieving intergeneric hybrids between A. triloba and Annona, a tropical genus. He thought this might allow the cultivation of the tropical Annona in American climates more northerly than Florida or California. Unfortunately Dr. Zimmerman's research was cut short by his death in 1941. His pawpaw collection was donated to the University of Virginia's Blandy Experimental Farm, and Neal Peterson is keeping an eye on it.

Peterson fears that the superior pawpaw trees identified up to now may be lost. Of the numerous collections that have been made, only nine varieties are currently being maintained and sold by fruit growers and nurserymen. Whenever he can find time, Peterson has been trying to resuffect these old pawpaw collections.

"I have met with some success," he says. "Dr. Zimmerman's Blandy Farm collection survives apparently intact and contains 56 to 60 trees. The fruit of several have a very fine flavor, and a couple have an exceptionally low seed content." He found a few trees remaining on the original property of Dr. Fairchild in Chevy Chase, Maryland. However, he says, "the majority must have been lost when the Washington Beltway was built through the property. "

Peterson is also concerned that pawpaw aficionados are a vanishing breed. "The pawpaw population is so large and spread over so wide a territory," he says, "that it is impossible for a field team to explore more than a minuscule fraction of what is out there. " In many locales a tradition of picking wild pawpaws persists, and these people know where the superior trees are. But like other local traditions, this one is dying out under the onslaught of migration and modern civilization. "The pawpaw is not an endangered species," Peterson says, "but the folks knowledgeable about the pawpaw are. "

Other fruits have made it from obscurity to preeminence because someone believed in them. The "Chinese gooseberry" is a good example. About 25 years ago an extension agent in California tried to get growers to plant "Chinese gooseberries" on an experimental basis. George Tanimoto accepted the challenge. Today he husbands 65 acres of what we know now as Kiwi fruit and is a pioneer in this relatively new industry around Gridley, California.

The kiwi experience shows that the American public may well be hungry for new and exotic fruits. With this in mind, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is exploring new possibilities. Dr. Robert J. Knight, based at the USDA's Subtropical Horticultural Laboratory in Dade County, Florida, is excited over possibilities for the Caranbola (star) fruit, which he thinks "is about to take off . " This golden fruit about the size of a cucumber looks like a fivepointed star when sliced. Dr. Knight has introduced a number of varieties into the United States from Asia and is breeding and selecting superior Car - "I'd drop the national cut by 50 percent for starters, to provide some breathing room. We'd do ecological studies, we'd thoroughly inventory to find out just where our old-growth forests are. We in the U.S. just can't meet environmental laws and produce the amount of timber that Congress has authorized. "

With that, Jeff disappears into the night, and the presses of Inner Voice run at some distant location. AF
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Author:Stevenson, Paul
Publication:American Forests
Date:Mar 1, 1990
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