It’s paw paw pollination time, with dreams of homegrown ‘bananas’

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It’s paw paw pollination time, with dreams of homegrown ‘bananas’

June 04, 2016 - 02:51
The commentary below represents the ideas, observations and opinions of the author.

Added to the shopping list: one paintbrush for pollinating the paw paws.

It’s all part of my master plan to bring native banana-type fruit to the H-F area.

If my pollination program goes according to schedule, we may have a crop of the legendary paw paw fruit this fall.

Or it could take another 20 years. If it ever happens at all.

Let me stop here. I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself.

  (Photo by Tom Houlihan/
  H-F Chronicle)

For the last half dozen years, I have gone slightly bonkers on the subject of Asimina triloba, a tree commonly known as the paw paw. I don’t know how this started. Maybe it’s because paw paw was picked for a number of place names in this part of the country. As a child, my wife Patty vacationed at Little Paw Paw Lake in Michigan. There is a tiny village in west central Illinois called Paw Paw. Rivers, lakes, schools — they’re all named after paw paws. The list goes on and on.

Then I started reading about paw paws.

“The paw paw is the largest indigenous American fruit tree,” I’d tell Patty. “Its fruit is known variously as the Indiana banana, the Missouri banana, the prairie banana and many other banana variations. Thomas Jefferson was very fond of the fruit and grew paw paws at Monticello.” Then I’d go into a mild rant about how paw paws have been unfairly forgotten in modern America. 

Sad to say, I have never seen a paw paw fruit in all its banana-like glory. I know there is a market in Michigan that will send them to you during the extremely brief and unpredictable paw paw season. I know they are green, with yellow flesh and big seeds that some people think are slightly poisonous. I know there are paw paws galore at an annual festival in southern Ohio, so many that there are pizzas made with their fruit and a recipe contest.

One fall we were at a giant farmers market in Holland, Mich., surrounded by dozens of tables of beautiful fresh fruits and vegetables.

I ignored them all and posed this question to one of the vendors:

“Do you have any paw paws?”

He looked at me with disgust. “We have apples and pears,” he whispered, doing his best Clint Eastwood imitation. “No paw paws.”

Fast forward to April 2013. After losing our beloved ash tree in the backyard, we bought 11 — count ‘em,  11 — new trees and bushes. A catalpa now stands where the ash used to tower. We have oaks and beeches. They are all trees that are native to Illinois.

And I insisted that we get paw paws.

There are three of them in the back of the yard. As it turns out, paw paws have gender. There are male and female trees. And, if there is to be fruit, cross-pollination needs to take place between the differently gendered paw paws. We hedged our bets by getting three trees.

They are not big trees – their maximum height is around 20 feet. When we got them, they were about 3 feet tall. After three years, they have grown another two feet. They grow so slowly that I started worrying that I am going to have to live to the age of 120 to see any fruit.

Until a couple of weeks ago when, miraculously and for the first time, the paw paws started to bloom. 

I was checking the trees and saw what appeared to be a small purple flower growing on one of the paw paws. 

A few days later, all three trees were flowering. I fired off an email to my brother-in-law David Tarbet. He is a docent at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston and our family’s tree expert. David said flies or beetles will need to pollinate the flowers.

Connor Shaw, the estimable owner of Possibility Place in Monee — that’s where we bought the trees —told me not to worry. That the flies and beetles would appear. He also said I could do some cross-pollination of my own using a paintbrush.

By this time I was having squirrel problems. I watched in horror as a squirrel climbed to the top of one of the paw paws, snapping off a branch and knocking off several flowers. We ran out to Ace Hardware in Cherry Creek Plaza, where a helpful sale associate told us to protect our plants with an organic repellent that makes squirrels think a coyote is lurking nearby. It appears to be working.

As of now, one of the paw paws has more than 30 flowers. There are only a handful of blooms on the other two.

My plan is to wait a few more days to see if additional flowers turn up on the less productive paw paws. Then I will do my best to pollinate my paw paw patch with a paintbrush. I expect to feel very silly doing this.

I am, by nature, pretty skeptical so I have my doubts about whether anything will come out of my pollination project.

But who knows? This fall, my little trees may be producing big beautiful paw paw fruit.

I will, of course, call them Flossmoor bananas.

Editor's note: This column originally appeared in the May 2016 print edition of the Chronicle. Look for Tom's next column in the June 16 print edition.