July 06, 2013
Pickin’ Up Paw Paws…

Forty years ago I planted a black walnut sapling, which is now a huge, massive tree producing bushels of nuts every year for the squirrels. Not for us, as you would appreciate if you ever tried to shell a black walnut.

Producing also, from its roots and fallen leaves, a substance called juglone which poisons practically every edible plant in its vicinity known to man — except the pawpaw tree. The pawpaw is a native American fruit in the custard apple family, reputed to be delicious. Neither you nor I have ever tasted a pawpaw, because it doesn’t keep well enough to reach the market.

What could I do then but plant pawpaws in the shade of the walnut? Nothing, and now, four years later, I have two pawpaws big enough to bear flowers and thus, theoretically, fruit. The thing is, though, that pawpaws are not self-pollinating. In the wild they are pollinated by carrion-eating flies, which they attract by having flowers the color of rotting liver. Since this is an iffy proposition, the hopeful pawpaw grower is advised to hang spoiled meat from the branches. Fortune smiled on me. Out hunting snakes just at blossom time, I came across a rotting deer carcass.

Just to be sure, though, I backed up the deer bones with hand pollination. The deal is this. First you take an artist’s brush and then just go to it:

Pollen is ripe for gathering when the ball of anthers is brownish in color, loose and friable. Pollen grains should appear as small beige-colored particles on the brush hairs. The stigma is receptive when the tips of the pistils are green, glossy and sticky, and the anther ball is firm and greenish to light yellow in color.

See? Nothing to it. A few weeks later and Shazam!, you’ve got yourself not just one but two baby pawpaws. Only about an inch long so far, but wait till October.


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Posted by Jerome Doolittle at July 06, 2013 12:38 PM
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I've heard of hand pollination in parts of China where they overused pesticides and killed off the bees, but it's the first time I've heard of it here. Can't the bees do that for you? Or since the honeybee is not native to America, how did the tree ever survive until now? Were the Indians Johnny Jeromeseeders?

Posted by: noseyparkerunit on July 6, 2013 7:12 PM

Best blog post I've come across anywhere in the last three weeks! Absolutely delightful!

Thanks!

Posted by: Derelict on July 6, 2013 11:32 PM

Just looking at that plant from an evolutionary biology perspective, I have to think something about it is probably deadly to some species. But what?

Posted by: noseyparkerunit on July 7, 2013 8:08 AM

So that's why my mother buys shelled black walnuts to make black walnut cake?

I had this family-oriented investment idea some years back of planting black walnut trees. After a while, there'd be walnuts to harvest at the homestead, and there'd be timber if times got tough. But I got stalled on where to put my walnut grove for the benefit of later generations.

Everybody moves around now, even or especially me, and mostly to places where a lot of black walnut trees won't fit. So those saplings would be looking sort of orchardy, and then some strangers would dig them up to make space for a swimming pool. So the hell with it. Anyhow, squirrels.

Posted by: JoyfulA on July 8, 2013 12:04 AM
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