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Pickin’ Up Pawpaws
updated: Dec 04, 2010, 9:45 AM

By Billy Goodnick

Picture a 14-year old Ohio kid and a thrown-together fruit stand built from two-by-fours and canvas. His name is Norman Beard. Now fast forward a bunch of decades and see how Norm has exemplified the adage, "As the Asimina triloba twig is bent, so grows the tree."

The Asimina genus is where you'll find the largest edible fruit that's indigenous to the North American continent. It goes by the common name of pawpaw and it helped pioneers stay healthy by providing fresh fruit during their explorations.

Though Norm wasn't optimistic that we'd find any ripe pawpaws this time of the year, he hit the jackpot as we reached the lower end of his 5-acre home, greenhouse (roofed with photovoltaic solar collectors) and orchard.

We split open the smooth-skinned, light green, egg-shaped pawpaws with our fingers and bit into the creamy, sweet flesh. Mouthgasm -- it's like a complete fruit salad in a handy carrying case. (A.D.D. diversion: Pawpaws are easy to grow, don't take up a lot of space and YOU MUST PLANT ONE IN YOUR YARD YESTERDAY.)

I met Norm a few weeks ago while gathering info for my previous Edhat post. In that blog, I delivered disappointing news about why the seemingly yummy idea of planting fruiting trees along the streets ain't gonna happen anytime soon. (Refresh your memory…Fruity Street Trees? no free lunch)

Though my primary reason for visiting Norm was street trees, the two hours I spent with him got me all worked up about fruit, nuts and berries, and introduced me to exotic tropicals that knocked my socks off.

Norm started Beard Tropics Nursery in 1998 to share his passion for rare fruits with others. His customers aren't just locals - he gets buyers from Phoenix, San Diego, San Francisco and Las Vegas. He even ships to the East Coast. Of the 200 varieties of tropical and subtropical fruit- and nut-bearing plants he offers, banana, sapote and mango generate the most sales. (YES, you can grow mango plants in our area, and they'd look totally cool in the right garden.)

"I carry everything from A to Y," he says with a twinkle. "These days, I'm concentrating on plants that have positive health benefits."

He walked me to a table in the greenhouse were he was germinating soursop seeds (Annona muricata - a tropical relative of pawpaw) recently sent from Puerto Rico. There's some interest in the fruit as a cancer remedy (but do your homework about any health claims).

I can't list all the plants I saw for the first time, but the stand-outs were a few coffee bushes growing outdoors, caper, cinnamon, goji berry from southeastern Europe and Asia, and cranberry bushes (no, they don't need to grow in a bog in Maine).

If you're curious about the world of less traditional fruit trees, start with an on-line visit to Beard Tropics Nursery, or make an appointment for a visit. Norm is generous with his knowledge and a kick to hang out with. Even if you're not yet ready to experiment with the whole Gilligan's Island approach, Norm sells a vast range of citrus trees and will be stocking the more traditional bare-root varieties (selected for local warm-winter conditions) like peach, apricot, plum, apple, etc. He boasts that his trees aren't, "those little skinny whips they sell at the local big box store. These are big, fat, robust trees that start producing much sooner." And winter is the right time to get your dormant bareroot trees in the ground. Whether you're already a fruit tree aficionado or just feel like exploring, you might be interested in another venture of Norm's. The California Rare Fruit Growers (CRFG, which despite the Golden State moniker has members in 48 states and territories, plus 35 countries worldwide) is the largest amateur fruit-growing organization on the planet. (I'm figuring that when Mars gets terraformed for human habitation, CRFG will be there with seedlings and a shovel.)

The CRFG is a non-profit with an educational arm that teaches grafting, tree care and other subjects to school kids. The Ventura/Santa Barbara chapter holds monthly meetings that instruct members how to grow and care for fruit trees, and frequently include field trips to nurseries and gardens. The killer bargain is that your $10 annual dues include their sumptuous, info-packed bi-monthly Fruit Gardener magazine.

There's a universe of edibles beyond the avocados, citrus and peach trees we see in so many gardens. Whether you have a welcoming spot in the ground, or just a sunny balcony with room for a pot, there's a good chance you can grow a sweet treat that's fun to eat.


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