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Orchard Trees - Papaws

( Originally Published 1927 )

Two of the forty-eight genera of the tropical custard-apple family are represented by a solitary species each in the warmer parts of the United States. Important fruit and ornamental trees in the tropics of the Old World are included in this family, but their New-World representatives are not the most valuable. However, they have a sufficient number of family traits to look foreign and interesting among our more commonplace forest trees; and because their distribution is limited they are not generally recognized in gardens, where they are planted more for curiosity than for ornament.

The Papaw

Asimina triloba, Dunal.

The papaw has the family name, custard-apple; from its unusual fruit, whose flesh is soft and yellow, like custard. The shape suggests that of a banana. The fruits hang in clusters and their pulp is enclosed in thick dark brown skin, wrinkled, sometimes shapeless, three to five inches long. Dead ripe, the flesh becomes almost transparent, fragrant, sweet, rather insipid, surrounding flat, wrinkled seeds an inch long. The fruit is gathered and sold in local markets from forests of these papaws which grow under taller trees in the alluvial bottom lands of the Mississippi Valley. In summer the leaves are tropical-looking, having single blades eight to twelve inches long, four to five inches broad, on short, thick stalks. These leaves are set alternately upon the twig, and cluster in whorls on the ends of branches. The flowers appear with the leaves and would escape notice but for their abundance and the unusual color of their three large membranous petals. At first these axillary blossoms are as green as the leaves; gradually the dark pigment overcomes the green, and the color passes through shades of brownish green to dark rich wine-red. The full-grown foliage by midsummer has become very thin in texture, and lined with pale bloom. The tree throughout exhales a sickish, disagreeable odor. The fruit is improved in flavor by hanging until it gets a nip of frost.

This "wild banana tree" is the favorite fruit tree of the negroes in the Black Belt. Its hardiness is surprising. From the Southern states, it ranges north into Kansas, Michigan, New York, and New Jersey.

The Melon Papaw

Carica Papaya, Linn.

The melon papaw does not belong to the custard-apple family, but it grows in southern Florida and throughout the West Indies, and has the name of our little "wild banana tree," so it may as well have mention here, as it is the sole representative of the true Papaw family, and it is universally cultivated for its fruit in the warm regions of the world. By selection the fruit has been improved until it ranks as one of the most wholesome and important of all the fruits in the tropics. In Florida the papaw grows on the rich hummocks along the Indian River, and on the West Coast southward from Bay Biscayne. It is very common on all the West Indian Islands. It grows like a palm, with tall stem crowned by huge simple leaves, one to two feet across, deeply lobed into three main divisions, and each lobe irregularly cut by narrow sinuses. The veins are very thick and yellow, and the hollow leaf-stalks lengthen to three or four feet. The bark of this tree is silvery white—a striking contrast with the lustrous head of foliage. The flowers are waxy, tubular, fragrant, turning their yellow petals backward in a whorl. On fertile trees the fruits mature into great melons, sometimes as large as a man's head; but these are the cultivated varieties. Wild papaws rarely exceed four inches long, and usually they are smaller. When full grown the fruit turns to bright orange-yellow. The succulent pulp separates easily from the round seeds.

In the West Indies, the trees often branch and attain much greater size than in Florida, where fifteen feet is the maximum, in the wilds.

The leaves of this papaw contain, in their abundant sap, a solvent, papain, which has the property of destroying the connective tissue in meats. They are bruised by the natives and tough meat, wrapped closely in them, becomes tender in a few hours. The fruits are eaten raw and made into preserves. Negroes use the leaves also as a substitute for soap in the washing of clothes.

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