Time to read3 minutes
Published 3 years ago
Last updated 3 years ago
The commentary below represents the ideas, observations and opinions of the author.
Yes, the Flossmoor banana truly exists.
I know. There’s one sitting on my dining room table.
To be honest, it doesn’t look much like a banana. More like a mango, which it resembles in size, shape and color.
Following a growing season that started with big purple flowers in May, it’s been through a lot — rain, heat, an abundance of Asian beetles — and it shows. My Flossmoor banana has a few scratches and is slightly discolored.
I don’t care. I think it’s beautiful. And, when the right time comes, I am sure it will be tasty.
Officially, of course, it is the fruit of Asimina triloba, the American paw paw tree. Asimina triloba is a native fruit-bearing plant, only one of a few in our part of the world. It is considered sub-tropical and rarely grows naturally anywhere north of the Chicago region.
We have three paw paws in the back of our yard. They’ve been there since 2013 — they were part of a big purchase of trees and plants after our beloved ash came down. Besides the shrubs, we got a catalpa, a couple of oaks and three beeches. They are all trees and plants that are native to Illinois.
I insisted on paw paws because I was intrigued by the idea of a tree that apparently bears fruit but cannot be domesticated for crops like apples or peaches. For years I’d go to farmers markets in Illinois and our neighboring states and ask about paw paws, only to have the purveyors of startlingly beautiful fruit and vegetables look at me like I had two heads.
Paw paws, though, are well-known in a quirky sort of way. Regionally, they have multiple names that often put them in the same category as bananas. They are known, depending on where you live, as the prairie banana, Indiana banana, Hoosier banana, West Virginia banana, Kansas banana, Kentucky banana, Michigan banana, Missouri banana and Ozark banana.
Hence, the Flossmoor banana.
Our paw paws were about two feet tall when they arrived in our backyard. For the first couple of years, they were the runts of the yard, and not to be taken seriously. One day I watched in horror as a squirrel climbed one of the little branches and snapped it clear off. After that, I lined the perimeter of the trees with Critter Ridder, a peppery dust that keeps varmints away.
By the third year, they were less runty, and showed signs of growing up. The leaves got bigger. There were tiny flowers in the spring. They got taller.
Two years ago, I located other paw paw owners — Rachael Middleton in Homewood and Nick Epley in Flossmoor — whose trees actually produced fruit. They gave me a few of their paw paws. It was the first time I had ever seen any of the fruit. I wrote about that experience for the Chronicle.
By the end of last year, a couple of our paw paw trees were eight feet high. I know that because I measured them throughout the summer with a long pole. According to the marks on the pole, they grew two feet between June and September.
Still, I wasn’t prepared for what happened this spring. There were more flowers than in previous years and they were much bigger than before. After that, there were dozens of buds. After a couple of weeks, many of them were still there and they looked like the start of tiny green fruit.
Over the years, I have been told a few things about the reproductive features of the paw paw. They have gender, which means that you want a male and female plant to pollinate each other — that’s why it is a good idea to have three plants, just to be sure that the genders are mixed. Also, the flowers are pollinated by flies. I have heard you should hang a chicken leg from the top of the paw paw to attract flies. (Honest.) Racheal told me she has been advised to put “something dead” below her trees. (She hasn’t.)
Whatever the reason, by June we were left with exactly four paw paws on our trees. I doted over them all summer, and watched them grow. Three were in a cluster and the fourth by itself. I checked them every day and went to war with the beetles that were devouring the paw paw leaves. I mostly prevailed and the two biggest trees are now more than 10 feet tall.
Which brings me to this morning.
I went out to check the paw paw fruit and discovered it was no longer on the trees.
Here’s what I found on the ground: one intact fruit (the biggest from the cluster), one that was partially chewed (probably by a squirrel) and another that was completely consumed except for a tiny cap.
I brought them in to show Patty. She said we should try eating the one that was partially gone. So I cut off the part that the squirrel had gotten to, peeled the rest and put it on a plate for the two of us. We probably each got a tablespoon of fruit.
The first thing I noticed was an unexpected flowery fragrance. Surprising for a fruit that was battered by a squirrel but just right for a Flossmoor banana.
And you know what? It tasted just right too — ripe with a nice, delicate flavor, sweet but not cloying and no after taste.
Gloriosky! It worked! We have a fruit tree that works!
With paw paws in your yard, there’s good reason to look forward to the future.
I am expecting a big crop next year. We are going to fertilize the paw paws with manure, which will attract flies that pollinate the buds.
After that, the rest will be easy.