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growing native fruit trees: pawpaws and persimmons, with lee reich

Lee Reich with paw paws (photo courtesy 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— the dios part of the genus name meaning god. Lee says 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.

American persimmon by Lee Reich

Lee’s tips:

  • 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.

growing pawpaws

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).

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  1. val says:

    I am lucky enough to have eaten fresh paw paw–amazing! I find both of these American natives to be beautiful trees with delicious fruit, and if they are really this low-care, then my reluctance to purchase fruit trees can be overcome.

    1. Casey says:

      longislandnatives.com

      However they only sell seedlings. Pawpaws generally do not transplant well. Starting from seed is a better option. Be sure to provide shade for your pawpaw for the first two years!

  2. IemNonymus says:

    I’m tired of people recommending grafted fruit trees. I have own-root pawpaws and persimmons and I’m fine waiting the years they take to grow fruit. Living on old farm land, I have inherited several plants and trees which are the remnants of grafted plants, with the graft long-since dead. With the own-root plant, you know what you’re getting and suckers are not as big of a deal. BTW pawpaws taste almost exactly like soursop for any of the caribbean people who may be visiting and thinking of planting a tree. It is a great tree for anyone who misses the tropics, but lives in a cold zone. Both pawpaw and persimmon are good choices if your soil is on the alkaline side, but the trees do sucker, so give them space.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Iemnonymous. This graft/own-root thing is true beyond fruit trees too, of course. Generally I like to buy things on their own roots–but many woody ornamentals don’t come that way.

    2. Rattlerjake says:

      There are many benefits to grafting, one being that you know exactly what type of fruit you will be getting. Second, is that you get to enjoy the fruit much sooner while you wait for the native trees to get old enough to produce. I like to take an older native tree and graft several varieties to it. third, you can ensure that the tree you grow is known for disease resistance.

      1. margaret says:

        Thanks, Rattlerjake, and welcome. Lee (interviewed in the story) does a lot of grafting, so I expect he would agree!

      2. Shana Byrne says:

        Also grafted trees often comes on, for some people, more desirable rootstocks to determine size of tree when full grown.

    1. LizBeth says:

      Funny, but the first PawPaw I ever saw was hiking at a park near Lancaster at the Pinnacle! I harvested a bunch of them for a restaurant I worked at, and the fragrance they produce is so sweet, it’s almost nauseating.

  3. Cheryl says:

    I have tried many mail order sites for paw paws and persimons. No luck I keep getting 6 inch stubs. I am craving a good paw paw tree

  4. John says:

    Regarding rooting fruit trees I am pleased to report success at air layering my grandfather’s Kiefer pear tree after many years of attempts to propogate seeds, etc. Park Greenhouse in Huntsville, AL sells an air layering kit which has a good rate of success and is simple to use with a split sphere that fits over an abraded segment of shoot treated with rooting hormone and surrounded by potting soil. After about 90 days in this moist medium roots have grown out from the shoot into the potting soil filled sphere. Cut the shoot off and plant it in a pot. Baby it with good watering for about a year and then transplant into your chosen site. Mr. Park usually answes his phone himself and deals directly with his customers. Thanks Mr. Park for helping me keep our heritage famly Kiefer pear variety going.

  5. Marcia Hall says:

    Hi Margaret- On Lee’s “recommendation” I planted paw paws at our new home 6 months ago-around May, 2014. They were surrounded by a tomato cage and black fabric all summer. One grew well, the other, slowly. But were fine. On the advice of a nursery manager I took the fabric off for winter – and added mulch. Now the deer have munched most of the leaves- and ALL of the new elderberry bushes leaves and I’m in a panic. Do I wrap them with burlap and mulch for the winter? The deer have discovered everything in just the last few weeks. Hostas: gone. Ornamental sweet potato vine: gone. Chard: gone. Bean vines: gone. Drying popcorn: 1/2 eaten but rescued! Even ate the raspberry bushes!!! Ow. Haven’t touched my diakon radishes to radish greens tho! AAAKK!! I know you have many critter challenges. Probably more now without Jack. =^-^= Any words of advice are greatly appreciated.

  6. Beth Murray says:

    The article says I need two varieties for cross pollination but how do I plant them? Close together, nearby each other, together? I’m getting ready to put mine in the ground but am confused about how closely the plants need to be near each other.

    1. margaret says:

      Plan on planting them within 30 feet of each other, Beth. Closer is fine, but of course not so close that they will crowd each other as they reach mature size.

  7. Annette says:

    I was lucky enough to find a large supply of pawpaws last fall – wonderful! I am growing some pawpaw trees in my landscape – but they are very slow in their growth process. They are about 2 years old (from being planted as seedlings about a foot tall). I know they have a very long taproot that needs establishing first. Any idea when I can expect fruit?

    I also planted two wild persimmons, but one of them didn’t make it. (We are Zone 4 in the Highlands of VA). I am contemplating buying two more larger trees (about 6 feet tall) from a nursery. The owner said they were “wild” persimmons and didn’t have a name for the variety. What do you think in terms of the chances of getting fruit? How long before persimmon produce fruit?

  8. Melinda Loxley says:

    Being a girl from Middle Tennessee, and having a father who grew up on a farm (hunting part of daily life), I don’t remember a time when I was a child that we didn’t look forward to Paw Paw time. My father would remember where he had seen the trees growing wild and keep an eye out for when the fruit was ready. We used to make homemade paw paw ice cream, and my grandfather loved paw paw cake. My mother would mix some of the fruit in with a yellow cake and ice (more like glaze) the cake with paw paw that had been mushed up. Since they are only ripe for a very short time, and they were hard to come by, paw paw was a real treat. I agree that the taste is somewhat like a banana with maybe apricot/mango mixed in. I do remember the very black and numerous seeds (almond shape and size). Just glad to share the experience. Thanks!

  9. rebecca says:

    It seems all the trees are sold on root stock. I am looking for own root trees to put in my yard. Where can I find American Persimmon and Paw Paw trees for zone 7b in the foothills of the appalachian on the NC/VA border.

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, Christopher. Spurred by your comment, I have now found various other interpretations, too — e.g., Missouri Botanical which says “Genus name comes from the Greek dios meaning divine and pyros meaning wheat or grain for this divine fruit.” Apparently everyone agrees on the gods part. : )

  10. Catherine says:

    I found a paw paw grove in my yard and the neighboring lot yard. There must be at least 50 trees. About 15 percent are close to 20 feet tall. I have tried to clear the brush and get ride of vines and other invasive species and non natives…. what now?

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