Tag Archives: native trees

American Heritage: Native Paw Paw Trees

Paw paw flowers in the spring

It’s paw paw season! Paw paws (Asimina triloba) are native trees that bear fruit in August, September, and October. Fruit of cultivated trees look very similar to mangos—green, kidney-shaped, and about 6 inches long and 3 inches wide. They have a variety of common names such as Indiana banana, poor man’s banana, and bandango. When cut in half, the interior reveals a yellow, custard-like pulp with two rows of large seeds. Paw paws can weigh from ½ to 1 pound. Technically a berry, they are the largest North American edible fruit. Paw paws taste like a cross between a banana and a mango with a splash of pineapple. They can be eaten raw or used in ice cream, pudding, smoothies, butter (such as apple butter), baked goods like cookies and pies, and even beer, brandy, and wine!

From Florida to Texas, north to New York, and west to Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska, paw paws are native to 26 states and grow as understory trees in hardwood forests near streams and rivers. In the wild, the trees grow to 15 to 30 feet and sucker, creating colonies. Reminiscent of cucumber magnolias, they have foot-long, dark green leaves. Unlike other fruit trees, paw paw trees are not subject to a high level of pests and diseases.

Paw Paws in American History and Folklore

Paw paw trees are part of American history and folklore. Jamestown colonists wrote about them in the 1600s. John Lawson, an Englishman, described them in his travels in the Carolinas in the 1700s. Danielle Boone enjoyed eating them. Members of the Lewis and Clark expedition ate paw paws for pleasure as well as sustenance. George Washington grew paw paw trees at Mount Vernon and ate the fruit as dessert. Thomas Jefferson grew them and sent seeds to his colleagues in Europe.  William Bartram, a naturalist, described the trees in Bartram’s Travels. His father, John Bartram, a botanist, sent seeds to Europe. During the Civil War, soldiers as well as African American slaves collected the fruit in the wild to supplement their meager diets. There is even a popular folk song called “Way Down Yonder in the Paw Paw Patch” about collecting ripe paws paws from the ground and putting them in a basket.

Paw paw fruit develop in clusters

Finding Paw Paw Trees and Fruit

Currently, Washington DC residents can see paw paw trees in the wild along the C&O Canal and Potomac River and as native plant representatives in public gardens. There are paw paw trees at the Smithsonian Pollinator Garden, next to the National Museum of Natural History, and at the U.S. Botanic Garden’s newly renovated Bartholdi Park and their National Garden’s Regional Garden of Mid-Atlantic Native Plants. 

Although paw paws are part of American heritage, you may not find them in grocery stores. When the fruit is ripe enough to eat, it drops to the ground and is highly perishable. The thin skin bruises easily, discoloring to black. Paw paws are best eaten immediately or preserved by removing and freezing the pulp. You may find them at local farmers markets in peak season and you will definitely find them at paw paw events across the country in the fall.

Growing Paw Paws in the Home Landscape

Paw paw fruits can be eaten raw

“There is a paw paw renaissance now,” said Michael Judd, owner of Ecologia, an edible and ecological landscaping service in Frederick, MD. Author of Edible Landscape with a Permaculture Twist, Michael currently is writing a book about paw paws and hosts an annual paw paw festival that will be on September 22 this year at LongCreek Homestead. “I call the paw paw an edible landscape all-stars because the tree is very attractive, low maintenance, and very fruitful.”

As native, hardy trees, paw paws can be grown in typical suburban plots. “Paw paws grow easily here,” said Michael. “This is paw paw country.” Although they are not self-fertile, that is, there must be two trees to cross pollinate to produce fruit, one can trim the trees to fit in residential properties. Michael recommends growing the trees in full sun, 10 to 12 feet apart, and cutting the central leader back to keep the trees at 8 feet. This shorten stature also makes them easier to harvest the fruit. Therefore, homeowners could have two 8-f00t trees in the yard producing 50 pounds of fruit each year. If full sun is not possible, they can grow in part shade but will produce less fruit.

Paw paw trees have a pyramidal shape

Michael recommends purchasing either a grafted tree, a select seedling, or a specific cultivar. Starting from seed takes years to produce fruit. Also starting from a wild paw paw seed will result in less than desirable fruit. The taste of wild paw paws varies plus the fruit is small with a poor pulp to seed ratio.  Breeders spend years selecting desirable characteristics such as large fruit, a high pulp to seed ratio (more pulp, less seed), and good flavor.

You can’t go wrong planting paw paws. They are native, deer resistant trees that provide fruit and pretty yellow fall color. “Paw paw trees are very ornamental, they have a beautiful pyramidal shape,” explained Michael. “The leaves turn to a beautiful yellow golden color in the fall and when the leaves drop they reveal a tree with nice architecture in the winter.”

All photos taken by Michael Judd.

Support National Pollinator Week: Plant Trees for Pollinators

sweet bay magnolia blooms in summer

It is amazing that something as small as a bee is vitally important to our food supply. As pollinators, bees transfer pollen thus ensuring that plants and crops develop fruit and seeds for us to consume. But bees are not the only keystone species that we depend on, we also need other pollinators such as butterflies, moths, beetles, flies, and birds, including hummingbirds. About 80 percent of the world’s flowering plants depend on pollinators (the others are wind pollinated). According to Cornell University, pollinators are responsible for every third bite of food we eat.

Unfortunately, pollinator populations have declined due to pesticides, habitat loss, and disease. Gardeners who are aware of this problem have deliberately planted flowering perennials and annuals to provide pollen (protein) and nectar (carbs). Because of their dramatic 90 percent decline in population over the past 20 years, monarch butterflies have received quite a lot of support. Many gardeners are planting milkweed – the one and only plant for monarchs — or trying to produce more butterflies with home kits. Bees too have received national attention. Nurseries promote bee friendly flowers and gardeners have planted bee magnets such as Joe-pye weed (Eupatorium), goldenrod (Solidago), and gayfeather (Liatris).

persimmon fruit, thanks to pollinators

Plant Trees to Support Pollinators

These efforts have helped the pollinators and certainly gardeners have come to appreciate the importance of pollinators. However, an overlooked source of food and protection for pollinators are trees. Trees provide more flowers, plenty of foliage for larva (caterpillars), and a large infrastructure to hold hives and nests. Because of the number of flowers a canopy provides, trees can provide more pollen and nectar compared to annuals and perennials. Plus, as homeowners move from house to house, the herbaceous landscape may change but usually the trees and all of their tiny inhabitants remain.

Plant Small Native Trees for Homes

“Trees are a permanent fixture,” said Steve Nagy, an International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) Board-Certified Master Arborist and Assistant District Manager of The Care of Trees. The Care of Trees is a division of the Davey Tree Expert Company, founded in 1880. Based in Ohio, the Davey Tree Expert Company has offices across North America–Steve is based in a northern Virginia office.

For attracting pollinators in the Washington DC metro area, Steve recommends native trees that thrive in our particular climate (cold winters and hot, humid summers). “We recommend native trees because the chances of them growing well is higher that non-natives,” he explained. For typical suburban lots where space is a premium, Steve recommends swamp white oak (Quercis bicolor), willow oak (Quercis phellos), post oak (Quercis stellata), cucumber magnolia (Magnolia acuminata), sweet bay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana), black gum (Nyssa sylvatica), little leaf linden (Tilia cordata), persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), and serviceberry (Amelanchier).

“Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) is a great tree, too,” said Steve, “It is a typically overlooked native with good fall color.”

Plant Trees that Flower at Various Times

heavy with summer-blooming flowers, the crape myrtle branches bend down

While a tree can provide many flowers, usually it only flowers for a few weeks. Because different pollinators are active at various times of the year, Steve recommends planting trees with various bloom times. Instead of planting the well-known spring bloomers such as flowering cherry trees, flowering plums, star magnolias, saucer magnolias, and redbuds, homeowners can plant summer blooming trees such as little leaf linden (see video below for bees pollinating a linden tree), persimmon, cucumber magnolia, southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), and crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia).

Plant Trees that Support Specific Pollinators

Another reason to plant trees is that certain pollinators require specific tree species or genera. Similar to the monarch butterfly’s relationship with milkweed, the spicebush swallowtail caterpillar only feeds on spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and sassafras (Sassafras albidum). The zebra swallowtail caterpillar only feeds on young paw paw leaves (Asimina spp.) and the pink-striped oak worm moth gets its name from its preference for oaks (Quercus spp.).

paw paw trees are vital to the zebra swallowtail

Plant Trees in the Fall

This week is National Pollinator Week. Now is the best time to learn more about pollinators and to identify new trees to plant to support them. However, summer is not the best time to actually plant trees. Because trees take longer to become established than perennials and annuals (larger plant hence more root structure and more foliage), Steve said the best time to plant trees is in the fall. “If you can get planting done by Mother’s Day,” said Steve, “the tree has a chance to make it through the hot summer but fall is the best time.” Steve also recommends to plant smaller rather than bigger but one can plant bigger plants in the fall. Fall, as opposed to spring or summer, offers warm soil but cooler temperatures, thus the amount of transpiration or water loss is less. The tree can devote energy into root establishment, not making up for water loss due to heat.

For information on how to plant a tree correctly, the Davey website has an extensive collection of articles and videos on tree planting and maintenance. If you need more personalized assistance, Steve mentioned that homeowners can request a free consultation by calling or completing a form on the website. A certified arborist can come to one’s home to evaluate the trees and landscape and devise a strategy to meet the goals for that specific property.

This week, celebrate National Pollinator Week by learning more about pollinators, identifying the best plants and trees for pollinators in your area, and incorporating best practices to protect, harbor, and feed pollinators.

 

Native Tree and Shrub Seedling Sale for Virginia Residents

Winterberry

Winterberry

The Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District (NVSWCD) has an annual native tree and shrub seedling sale, making low-cost native shrub and tree seedlings available to Northern Virginia residents. Seedling packages go on sale each year in January and are available for pickup in early May. Trees and shrubs help cleanse water, prevent soil erosion, provide habitat, cool our climate and clean our air. This year’s seedling sale features shrubs and trees from the Plant NOVA Natives guide and campaign, a regional effort to promote native plants. For more information and to download a copy of the guide, see www.plantnovanatives.org. For more information on the NVSWCD shrub and tree seedling sale, including photos and descriptions of the plants, see www.fairfaxcounty.gov/nvswcd/seedlingsale.htm

The 2015 Shrub and Small Tree Package features 10 seedlings for $16.95. The Tree Package includes 6 seedlings sold for $11.95. A full, nonrefundable payment must accompany your order by Monday, April 22, or until supplies run out. You will receive a confirmation receipt and a map to the pickup site (in central Fairfax County). Orders may be picked up on Friday, May 1, 9:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m., or Saturday, May 2, 9:00 a.m.-noon.  NVSWCD will start to accept orders for the seedling sale starting mid-January 2015.

Shrub and small tree package includes two seedlings from each of the following plants (photos are my own):

River Birch

River Birch

  • Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)
  • Silky dogwood (Cornus amomum)
  • Eastern red bud (Cercis canadensis)
  • Red chokeberry (Photinia pyrifolia)
  • Arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum)

Tree package includes two seedlings from each of the following plants:

  • River birch (Betula nigra)
  • Willow Oak (Quercus phellos)
  • Shortleaf Pine (Pinus echinata)