growing native fruit trees: pawpaws and persimmons, with lee reich
APPLE TREES—the fruit everyone thinks they want in their backyards—aren’t easy to grow East of the Rockies, as those who have tried probably noticed when they produced blemished fruit (or required multiple pest-defeating tactics on a strict schedule). And if you’re keeping track, apples aren’t native. Fruit expert Lee Reich offers up two unusual but delicious American native fruit-tree beauties that require little more than to be planted. In print or the latest public-radio podcast, how to grow pawpaws (top photo) and persimmons to perfection.
Lee’s tips for growing pawpaw or American persimmon couldn’t make it sound more appealing, or simple:
“Plant it, water it, and keep weeds and deer away for a couple of years, and then do nothing,” he says. No fancy pruning (like those apples crave), no particular pests–and a big, juicy harvest. More details on how to choose which variety to grow are included in the highlights from the April 29, 2013 edition of my public-radio show and podcast, transcribed below. To hear the entire interview, use the streaming player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
growing american persimmons
THE AMERICAN PERSIMMON is Diospyros virginiana— whose genus name translates as “fruit of the gods.” Lee says that’s a good description. It has a flavor “like a dried apricot, if you soaked it in water, dipped it in honey, and gave it a dash of spice,” though when unripe you really don’t want to bite into one, he warns.
- In Zone 5, an American persimmon can easily be kept to 25 feet, says Lee, but in Maryland, where he used to live, they got to 50 feet. Pruning can keep them in scale if needed.
- Though D. virginiana is hardy to Zone 4-10, in that cold end of its range you may not be able to ripen the fruit of some varieties in a cool, short summer.
- Don’t purchase an unnamed seedling, Lee advises; get a named variety (there are more than 2 dozen kinds).
- Choose among the dozens of selections not just for flavor, but also for one that will ripen within your growing season’s length.
- In the wild, American persimmons are dioecious—meaning you’d need a male and a female plant to achieve pollination, and get fruit. Good news:
- Not so among the best of the named varieties, which are self-fruitful. Ask about the one(s) you are considering, and whether they are self-fruitful.
- Lee’s favorite persimmon, and the hardiest: ‘Szukis,’ he says, is very reliable and offers a prolific harvest
- What do do with all the late-summer and fall fruit? You can make persimmon bread, pudding, and even perhaps persimmon beer, say Lee, who uses persimmon as some, but not all, of the sugar in his own brew.
- Nurseries offering named persimmons: Burnt Ridge Nursery, Nolin River Nut Tree Nursery, One Green World, Raintree Nursery.
THE PAWPAW, or Asimina triloba (top photo), “has a lot of tropical aspirations,” says Lee about this decidedly non-tropical species, hardy in Zones 4-8 and reaching just 25 feet or smaller. Those aspirations:
- It’s the northernmost member of the Custard Apple family (other relatives: guanabana, or soursop).
- Its looks very tropical, with stunningly large, lush leaves, like an avocado tree.
- Its fruit forms in clusters like bananas—meaning, says Lee, that it has multiple ovaries, so “one flower can make a cluster of up to nine fruits.”
- Its main tropical aspiration, he says: The texture of its fruit is very similar to banana (as is its flavor—“sort of banana with avocado and mango mixed in”).
With pawpaws, which are native as far west as Nebraska, about as far north as Pennsylvania and into New York a little, and as far south as Florida, investing in a named variety is your best bet, too, as with the persimmon.
You’ll need two varieties for cross-pollination, “but both will bear fruit,” says Lee, “since they are hermaphroditic.”
A named variety (there are more than 2 dozen) will guarantee the best-tasting pawpaw.
Also: Named varieties are grafted, so they’re faster to mature and bear. Seedlings are not such a good choice, taking as much as a decade to reach fruiting age.
How to eat pawpaw? In desserts, says Lee.
“In a custard cup, it tastes like crème brulee,” he says. Could there be a better endorsement of this unusual native fruit?
(Photos courtesy Lee Reich, used with permission.)
prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Listen to the whole April 29, 2013 interview with Lee Reich using the player up near the top of the page. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).