As another paw paw season winds down, I reflect on my first experience with North America’s largest native fruit. Asimina triloba, the paw paw, is a small understory tree, with a native range extending from south eastern US, to the great lakes region. I grew up in the mountains of northern Pennsylvania, just beyond the native range of paw paws, and so did not cross paths with this sweet, aromatic and flavorful fruit in my foraging expeditions.
In the late 1980’s my work as a permaculture teacher led me to be the featured speaker of a Natural Living Group in Butler PA. One of the audience ask if I know of Tom Mansell, telling me his home was similar to what I was describing as permaculture. Through mutual friends I was able to arrange a visit to Tom’s property, which he called Paw Paw Haven. As luck would have it, my sons, Zack and Chris and I happened to visit at Paw Paw Haven during paw paw season.
Paw Paw Haven was a residential property situated at the northern edge of paw paw territory, high on bluffs of the Ohio River, just outside of Aliquippa. Tom, then in his mid 80’s, had been developing his property since the late 1940’s. An avid gardener, and plant collector, Tom had created what we now call a food forest, and permaculture site, long before these concepts were devised. When we visited, Tom’s failing health had caused him to scale back his activities, but he still maintained his food forest, selling his products at a local farmers market. Tom was a long time member of the North American Fruit Explorer, www.nafex.org , and his plant collection featured selected varieties of fruits and nuts traded with other NAFEX members over many years
Paw Paw Haven was a marvel and huge inspiration to me. The one to two acre property was edged with hedges of filberts and hazel nuts. His apple orchard had 80 varieties grafted onto 25 trees. Edible chestnuts, walnuts, heartnuts, hickory nuts, mulberries and grew tall through out the property. Under and among the trees were gardens, stone fruits, raspberries and twenty two varieties of Paw paws. Tom’s own paw paw selection “Kirsten” was the result of his own cross breeding trials.
The amount of perennial foods Tom Mansell had collected, planted, grown and tended on this small lot was living proof of the theories behind permaculture. Tom graciously shared his knowledge with me as we toured his property, and sent us home with nuts, paw paw fruits and seeds, and one of his grafted paw paw seedlings. I also took home inspiration and the knowledge that, with time, effort and good design, my permaculture work would yield many fruits.