The last couple weeks I have been picking up pawpaws and fixing fig jam from backyard fruits which I have been growing for years. The harvest has been good and even tastier. Two sweet native fruits that grow in North Carolina that are very nutritious and have provided a food source for humans and wild animals for millennia can be grown in your yard. Figs (Ficus carica) and pawpaws (Asimina triloba) grow in sun or partial shade in multiple types of soils. Both fruits are good for baking, fresh eating and have unique flavors.
The pawpaw has probably never been seen or eaten by today’s majority population of North Carolina, but it grows native to all 100 counties. In addition, it grows from Florida all the way to Ontario, Canada. It is the largest native fruit in our state and North America. Today, you can buy named and selected varieties that are chosen for their flavor or size from mail-order nurseries. The trees grow easily from suckers off the root as well as from seeds. The pawpaw is the closest thing we have to a tropical fruit. Pawpaw’s flavor has been described as “similar to vanilla custard” to “a banana.” If you like banana bread or persimmon pudding, the pawpaw pulp bakes great bread, pies and cookies. Susan, my wife, made us some delicious pawpaw cookies and iced some with lemon and some with orange icing. They are soft cookies and delicious.
Pawpaw fruits are yellowish green and are ripe when slightly soft like a mango. Discard the lima-sized seeds and skin and mash the pulp for freezing or put into baking recipes just like persimmons. Some folks just slice them in half and eat the custard-like flesh with a spoon. The Kentucky State University Extension Service says pawpaws “…are high in vitamin C, magnesium, iron, copper, and manganese. They are a good source of potassium and several essential amino acids, and they also contain significant amounts of riboflavin, niacin, calcium, phosphorus, and zinc. Pawpaws contain these nutrients in amounts that are generally about the same as or greater than those found in bananas, apples, or oranges.” Deer may feast on the fallen fruit, but they haven’t found mine yet.
Figs are well written about in the Bible and well known for thousands of years by cultures living in the Mediterranean and Middle East, where it is hot, sunny and often dry. Even our Christmas songs and old ballads sing of “figgy pudding” as a sweet dessert. Before sugar was used widely, figs were a fruit often used to sweeten foods. Figs are also high in potassium and some folks claim they can help regulate blood pressure by replacing sodium.
The trees are often grown as dense bushes and I have three for a good fig supply. They love the heat, are low-maintenance and can tolerate some drought. They need very little pruning or fertilizer. There are actually two harvests on varieties like Brown Turkey, which I have. A small harvest in early August on last year’s growth and a larger harvest on this year’s growth. Fig bushes can get quite big. One of mine is about 20 feet tall and 12 feet wide right now.
Figs can be eaten in multiple ways. Even though we have only prepared them as jam, they can be eaten dried in breads, biscuits and rolls or other types of desserts. For jam, we just add a little sugar to the quartered fruits in a pot, a small amount of water and a tablespoon or so of lemon juice and some lemon zest. We also love them as fresh fruit and our granddaughter wants a handful on every visit to our house.
For jam, I pick the figs just as they begin to soften and I store them in the refrigerator each day as I collect enough for a big batch to cook. They are highly perishable and that is why you seldom see them for sale in fresh markets. The best favorites to grow here are Brown Turkey and Celeste and they do not need pollination. In fact, the fig is actually an inverted flower. The flower is inside the fruit. If you don’t like the fruit, just remember, in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve used the leaves as “clothing.”
Gwyn Riddick is a North Carolina Certified Plantsman and former owner of Riddick Greenhouses & Nursery. He is a Fellow of the Natural Resources Leadership Institute (NCSU). If you have gardening questions, send them to Gwyn Riddick at The High Point Enterprise, 213 Woodbine St., High Point, N.C. 27260, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.