Updated: Dec 4, 2019
With Autumn's arrival, here at Immortal Mountain, we've begun the process of wrapping up our seasonal efforts and tucking in our long-term projects before the Winter sets in. While the year has been fruitful and full of (mostly) meaningful busyness, there are always missed opportunities throughout the growing and foraging season -some of which are easier to accept than others- from one year to the next. Our sustained mission, since the first tree we planted here at our small farmstead, has been to create a diverse and intensive ecosystem of a land-base, with hopefully greater ecological implications than just food production for us homesteading human inhabitants. As the landscape matures, we've observed that with increased ecological diversity and production comes a proportionate abundance of missed opportunities. We're starting to view our roles here as Facilitators of Potential, and are trying to let go of the pressure to always be the beneficiaries of the (so often ephemeral) fruits of our labor. That said, 2019 will long be remembered around here as the year we finally seized the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the strange realms and life-cycle of the paradoxical Pawpaw.
Our tribe's Pawpaw journey began back in June, when we were surprised and elated to discover a cluster of well-hidden, but large fruits, on one of the trees we had planted several years ago. The Pawpaw fruits' skin was a similar green tone to the leaves it was lurking behind, though matte and ovoid in contrast to the characteristic, large and glossy lobe-shaped leaves which make Pawpaw trees relatively easy to identify in the wild, but whose fruit can be easily overlooked. These strange, levitating pods had achieved an impressive size and weight, even with so long to go before actually ripening, and once you lay eyes on them you can't unsee the surreal architecture in the fruit-set, hovering unsettlingly, from a disproportionately tiny stem, and projecting radially from a central hub. This particular fruit-laden tree had flowered in the past, donning rich crimson pedals as spellbinding in the early spring before the leaves have achieved their maximum size, as the pale green ovoid fruits are to behold at the start of a long summer. Prior to this year, however, no pollination had occurred among the few maturing trees in our shady woodland forest garden. But with this new development, Pawpaw infatuation set in.
We've wandered in and out of Pawpaw consciousness throughout the last decade, first crossing paths with some mature trees at Edible Landscaping, a nursery specializing in "less care" fruit and nut trees located in Afton, Virginia. We have had some chance but noteworthy encounters with the mysterious tree since then, as well: we've sat under a huge, relic pawpaw in a prominent spot in the landscape at Monticello; we have been guided, as though Pixie-led, off the trail to squandered piles of floral-scented fallen, fermenting fruit; we've tasted some past their prime, have been gifted some in out of context locales by those already in the know, but the pawpaw's esoteric nature was too elusive to be truly appreciated by us, the uninitiated. Never yet had we sustained pawpaw consciousness throughout an entire season, from flower sighting to tree-shaking, from collecting to processing, and seed selection and saving, until this fateful year.
Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is considered a native species within a very wide range across the eastern United States. While the tree requires genetic diversity for pollination, many cultivars as well as selected wild seedlings are available from a multitude of high quality nurseries. The first two varieties we planted were a cultivar called "Mango" and a seedling grown from choice wild genetics for pollination- the former which fruited this season. One benefit of establishing a forest garden in your homestead's Zones 1 and/or 2 (basically, the areas in production that are nearest your house, for the non-permaculturalists out there) is having a cross section of species to care for and observe through all stages of their life, right in your immediate purview. If the plant species you've stocked within your homefront landscaping is in any way representational of the native ecology in your region (utilizing natives or at least analogous cultivars in one's food forest design is useful for this reason) is that you can easily keep tabs on what is flowering, fruiting, ripening, etc. within the broader regional landscape. Because we happened to notice the developing fruit on a Pawpaw tree we had tucked into our demonstration forest garden, we were keyed-in to the fact that we could begin to locate any fruit-bearing trees in the wild spots we've previously noticed Pawpaw colonies, while on walks and hikes near our home. We managed to make time for Pawpaw scouting missions, and a few subsequent check-ins, noting that the fruit develops early but stays on the tree in an unripe state for a surprisingly long period of time before it's willing to fall. Ironically, before we could harvest any of the fruit on the tree we'd planted, they were all intercepted a bit prematurely, one after the next by an over-eager raccoon or possum. However we were incredibly fortunate to have seemingly zero competition for the wild Pawpaws, where, when finally ready to harvest, a bounty awaited. Anyone willing to track through the hollows and (this season, dry) stream beds in search of perfectly ripe clusters would be rewarded in kind. And herein lies the paradox of the pawpaws...
EPHEMERALITY. While an impressive amount may lay before those with eyes to see and hands to harvest, how many Pawpaws does one really need to take home? If picked too firm, bruising and spoilage will occur instead of proper ripening. If picked when the fruit "gives" a bit, they should ripen successfully, however fresh storage is somewhat short-lived, and processing for long-term storage is a pretty messy and quite labor-intensive affair (potentially fun-ish, but Lone Wolves take heed: it's "takes a village" kind of work). These variables play a huge part in our subject, the Pawpaw's lack of representation in the commercial produce market.
Pawpaws are quintessentially ephemeral, and are arguably best enjoyed as such, eaten knife-in-hand, peeled moments after shaking the typically small trees and hunting down the freshly fallen, orange-yellow fleshed gems, resting in stretches of stream bed rock and leaf litter. Opportunities to hug these trees out of gratitude, or at least sing to them a little, abound.
And the taste of a perfect Pawpaw is enough to make any cool-climate forest dweller feel a tinge undeserving of it's tropical complexity (it is in the same family [Annonaceae] as tropical cousins the cherimoya and guanabana, and has flavor hints of banana, mango and pineapple), however many humans who occupy the same range as the Pawpaw have never even heard of them, and most have probably never tasted one. From a landscape-design perspective, it's a permaculturalist's holy grail- a resilient tree that prefers to dwell in the understory, with fruit-set ripening in 75% shade (or more), tolerant of some pretty wet soil conditions, and which suffers minimal insect or deer predation. And from a forager's perspective, not many creatures seems to want the fruit more than us wild-food gathering types, perhaps on account of the leaves, twigs, skin and seed of the fruits' potential toxicity to many other species of insects and animals (so please note, if designing Pawpaws into an animal grazing systems, this topic warrants further research and precaution).
We parked the truck near the goldenrod meadow, the day had finally arrived. The three of us, following a dry stream bed through the roadside curtain of bittersweet into the shelter of the hollow, scrambling uphill. Over poison ivy and river rocks, past patches of jewelweed where the water still trickled, barely. Before us, roughshod colonies of Pawpaw trees who've had to endure a long dry season in the shadows of the sycamore and tulip poplars. Above us, on bowing branches supported by over-burdened trunks, a hoard of treasure which these trees have labored all year to bear. Ready to be shaken free, but far too many to be carried home. A lesson here, in this dark fold of the mountain. That such an invisible and silent place would provide far more than our little tribe could gather. So eat, enjoy, be grateful in this free but fleeting moment.
Well, maybe bring at least a few of the loveliest fruits home, and the countless seeds therein. Since Industry has not yet appropriated this still-wild fruit, the joyful work to be done remains, thankfully, in all of our hands, to stratify and plant these beautiful trees far and wide. Certainly in our Zone 1 and 2's, but also in the wilder places, perhaps where scant Pawpaw populations are already present. Here, the introduction of diverse genetics could, in time, improve the yield and perpetuate the harvest for generations to come. The trees might appreciate humanity's continued partnership- one that brought them north into these temperate forests to begin with, not so long ago... But that's another story, which, with the recent aknowledgment and celebration of this wonderful indigenous fruit, is also waiting patiently to finally be told (once again).