Fruit Tree Once Common on Cape Cod May Be Making a Comeback

May 4, 2017

“Pawpaw is a tree that will grow here, and was growing here, actually, before the Europeans came,” Eliza Travesino said, as we stood in her Brewster backyard nursery, which holds about a thousand tiny trees. “It can grow from about 12-to-25 feet. It needs a few individuals to pollinate, it’s not self pollinating. And it also produces fruit”

This fruit is the reason Travesino is so excited about the pawpaw. She’s part of a group called the Food Forest Initiative of Cape Cod, and their mission is to bring food-producing trees back into our woods.

“The tree project is basically about helping to restore some of the genetic diversity of the tree population on the Cape,” Travesino said. “Before Europeans came there were a lot of hardwoods here, there was a lot more genetic diversity in our forests.”

Hardwood species like hickory, beech, red maple, and birch were much more common in our area than they are today, and food-producing species like pawpaw, northern pecans, hazelnuts, black walnuts, persimmons, chestnuts, and butternuts were also present either on the Cape or slightly south of here. The pawpaw, in particular, was once common all over the east coast of North America.

“It sort of looks like a mango,” Travesino said of the fruit. “If you cut it open, it has a bunch of seeds inside. You can scoop it out. People have described it as a combination between mango, pineapple, and banana. So it’s very tropical. And the reason pawpaws lost popularity is because the fruit starts to ferment—not immediately after it ripens, but fairly quickly. It doesn’t have a very long shelf life. They freeze very well, they can very well, you can eat them fresh—but they don’t travel well.”

I asked her how old were the tiny trees we were looking at.

“The smaller ones would be about a year to two years old,” she said. “You can get them producing within about twelve years if you plant them in your yard and regularly water. In twelve-to fifteen years they can start producing fruit, but you do have to make sure you have a few around so they can cross-pollinate.”

The pawpaw is like most fruit trees in this respect; species like apples, plums, and pears also require pollination between two or more trees for fruit to set.

“But the great thing about pawpaw,” Travesino said, “is that it doesn’t have problems really with many diseases or pests. Deer don’t eat it, and it’s a great plant for wildlife and insects. There’s a species of butterfly that it’s the specific species of food for, they eat the leaves.”

The butterfly is a zebra swallowtail. Apparently Thomas Jefferson was a big fan of the pawpaw fruit—they get ripe in late summer—and he ate them chilled, for dessert. Pawpaws are the largest edible fruit native to the United States and are indigenous to 26 eastern states. On top of that, they’re filled with protein and antioxidants. Eliza Travesino says she’s hoping with a little help, paw paws and other indigenous food trees can make a comeback.

“You can adopt a tree and we give you a tree, give you instructions on how to take care of it,” she told me. “You just need to keep it watered, amend the soil a bit to give it a jumpstart.”

Historically, fruit trees like the pawpaw were spread by mega-fauna—big animals weighing at least 90 pounds—like humans. But since the extinction of some of these species, like mammoths, and the advent of indoor plumbing, mega-fauna are no longer so good at spreading undigested seeds through the forest. Still, some smaller animals like foxes and raccoons are likely to eat pawpaw if given the chance, and if they do, the trees will likely spread.

“I love to think about the Cape in 30 or 40 years,” Travesino said, “covered in pawpaws, or hickories, or persimmons, or other fruit and nut bearing trees.” 

HERE is how to adopt a Pawpaw tree: 

Tree Project of Cape Cod

774-212-0179 or email info@greeningcapecod.com