Jan Huskey, a big man with a kind smile and soft voice, greeted me in his Meridian yard, garden hose in hand. Behind him stood an unruly forest of fruit trees.
"I'm just a common home gardener that happened to run into a friend that knew about pawpaws," Huskey said by way of introduction.
I hadn't heard of that mysterious fruit until I spotted Huskey's produce on display at Boise Co-op one fall. This friend of Huskey's had grown pawpaws back in Alabama, and knowing that Huskey loved growing odd fruit, thought he should try the stubby-banana-shaped pawpaw in Idaho.
In response to his friend's suggestion, Huskey asked what nearly everyone west of the Mississippi asks: "What's a pawpaw?"
Considering the fact that the pawpaw is the largest edible fruit native to America, its lack of fame is a little surprising. An understory tree common to the eastern United States, the pawpaw was cultivated by native tribes, loved by George Washington, frequently depended on by Lewis and Clark, and the subject of a children's nursery rhyme (way down yonder in the pawpaw patch).
It has a sweet, creamy interior with a flavor reminiscent of mango and banana--a sunny, equatorial taste that is less astonishing when one learns that the rest of the pawpaw's close relatives in the Annonaceae family are found only in the tropics--fruit with palm-tree-and-white-sand names like cherimoya, ylang-ylang and soursop.
Yet pawpaws are also fragile, don't keep long and have seeds that make them a little tricky to eat. Thus, they've been shunned by commercial agriculture. Even in Ohio, where the pawpaw is the state's official fruit, it's hard to come by.
"Mostly, it takes lottery-style luck to chance upon them," concluded a recent article from the Canton, Ohio, Repository newspaper. Pawpaw trees survive there only on abandoned farmsteads and in wild groves. But once found, the article also cautioned that pawpaws should only be eaten when ripe: "Unripe pawpaws will turn your stomach into a compost barrel and generate enough gas to heat your house."
Jan Huskey wasn't discouraged by bad press when he ordered and planted his first pawpaw tree in his Meridian yard more than a decade ago. He likes the novelty and challenge of unusual or heritage fruit trees.
"This is the pawpaw tree ahead of us," he said of a small upright plant with big, floppy leaves shading clusters of pudgy, greenish fruit. "It's probably about 13 years old, and it's taken off and grown quite well."
Although native to the humid East, Huskey said his dozen or so pawpaw trees have adapted just fine to southern Idaho's arid climate.
"They call them a tropical tree," he said. "But oddly enough, they are hearty down to 25 below."
Pawpaws do need a bit of coddling in their first years, but, said Huskey, "with a little instruction and reading on it, I think anybody could grow these pawpaws."
Southern Idaho is clearly capable of growing more varieties of fruit than it does. Two years ago, when I interviewed Dr. Esmaeil Fallahi, an Idaho fruit researcher at the University of Idaho Parma Research Center, he walked me into an orchard full of figs, pistachios, almonds--even persimmons and pomegranates. Fallahi told me gardeners are often limited more by tradition than climate. After seeing those Idaho persimmons and pomegranates, pawpaws seemed easy.
As Huskey led me deeper into his orchard, his pawpaws looked to be flourishing, filling their natural ecological niche in the understory and spreading their broad leaves in the shade of apple, plum and peach trees. One pawpaw tree was packed with particularly large fruit.
"I've had up to about a half pound on some of these," Huskey said.
When the fruit is ripe, usually late September or early October, Huskey sells his pawpaws through Boise Co-op and Pollard's Fruit Stand on Garrity Boulevard in Nampa. The fruit stand's owner, Hazel Pollard, said she frequently sells out of pawpaws thanks in part to an explanatory sign Huskey made.
"Probably seven out of 10 people will buy one just because they've never tried it before," said Pollard. "And then the ones who do try it and like it, they'll come in and buy them by the bag-full," she said.
Huskey isn't really into pawpaws for their commercial value, though. You only have to hang out with him under his trees for a few minutes to realize he just likes weird fruit. Along with his pawpaws, he proudly showed me two types of Asian jujube fruit, unusual pears, old-time apples and stuff that just popped out of the ground. He's really an amateur botanist who likes to watch things grow. And as I was leaving, he just had to tell me one more tidbit about pawpaw botany.
"The blossoms on it are kind of interesting," Huskey said. "Before the leaves come out, the blossoms come out and they're kind of an upside down tulip about the size of a marble and they're green."
Before I could get a bead on where he was going with this story, he added, "they're fertilized by flies and mosquitoes, not honey bees, which is interesting."
The pawpaw, it turns out, appreciates a little irony. It's one of those plants that produces sweet fruit with the help of what some might consider unsavory pollinators--which also include blow flies and carrion beetles. To lure those bad boys in, the pawpaw wraps its flowers in the faint scent of rotting flesh--not uncommon in the natural world--and not particularly noticeable, according to Huskey. To ensure proper pawpaw pollination, some growers resort to hanging chicken parts or other overripe meat in their pawpaw trees. Huskey said his specimens mostly manage on their own, but when needed, he prefers hand pollination to rotting flesh.
"I got a little artist's brush," he said, pantomiming a delicate task he clearly enjoys. "And I got some pollen off one and took it over to the other blossom and pollinated it and I had a little fun doing that."
"But no chicken wings in the trees?" I asked.
"I think I hung a gopher one time," he said.