The (Almost) Forgotten Carolinian Forest Fruit Tree
The Paw Paw Tree has become a favourite of hundreds of people across the Carolinian Forest Zone who have re-discovered the divine sweetness and remarkable nutritional value of its oddly-shaped fruit. A member of the Custard-Apple family, this tree is fondly known by many different names, depending on where you live in the US or Southern Ontario. Some of the fun names include the "Possumhaw," "Custard Banana," "Ohio Banana," or "Hoosier Banana."
Formerly much more common across the landscape from Niagara to Point Pelee, the Paw Paw Tree is now only found in a few pockets of the Carolinian forests of southwestern Ontario. For a little more than the past decade, however, this native fruit tree has received a resurgence of interest from those who desire to recover nature, or who want to grow native plants adapted to our climate for permaculture purposes (e.g. food forests, yard fruit trees, etc.).
A small tree, growing rarely taller than 5 meters (15 feet), the fruit is certainly my personal favourite. If you really like bananas, mangos, pears or papaya, this fruit might possibly set off starbursts in your mouth. Additionally, it is high in vitamins (A, C), minerals (potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc!) and anti-oxidants. It also offers much protein, fat, and fibre. It's not hard to see why there's been such a resurgence in interest.
What happened to it; where did it go for 150 years? While this tree was one of many favourites among First Nations, when European settlers sadly decimated the Native Peoples, they did the same to most of forests across Eastern North America. The Paw Paw was relegated to tiny populations in scattered areas.
Ecologically, the tree is a part of the woodland ecosystem. Young trees prefer to grow in the shade. After a few years, they need some access to at least of few hours of at least filtered sunlight to produce fruit. They are more than happy to grow with Black Walnuts or in the shade of most trees that are found in Wortley Village and Carolinian Canada.
After 4 or 5 years, large burgundy flowers will appear. They need to be pollinated by Bottle Flies who have visited another nearby Paw Paw flower. The flies are lazy - they seldom travel more than 3 meters or 10 feet between trees.
Currently, in the yards and woods of Old South I know of about 50 Paw Paw Trees that have been recently planted. I prefer to eat them raw, but there are a multitude of baking recipes out there for culinary creations that feature Paw Paw.
Originally appeared in the Wortley Villager.
Ben Porchuk is an Ecologist and Forest Therapy Guide/Trainer working for Carolinian Canada and the Global Institute for Forest Therapy. Contact: email@example.com