Sunday, October 11, 2009

Way Down Yonder in the Paw Paw Patch

This weekend, the USF Botanical Gardens held their annual fall plant sale. At 10:00 a.m., when I was standing in line waiting to get in, the temperature was already 90 degrees, with humidity making the air so thick that it was hard to breathe. I was on a mission, though, and with sweat dripping in my eyes, I plunged inside to find one or more of the following: pipevine, cassia, wild lime, and paw paw. These are all butterfly larval host plants that I desperately want for My Florida Backyard, and they are all fairly hard to find.

An hour later, I emerged victoriously, carrying a Candlestick Cassia and a Dwarf Paw Paw. (I also had a red and white bleeding heart vine and a sweet almond bush, but that's beside the point. Isn't everyone susceptible to impulse buys?) The paw paw especially was a treasured find - only one vendor at the entire fair was carrying them, and she was a specialist.

I was barely inside the sale before I found the small booth for Pietro's Paw Paws, owned by Terri Pietroburgo. Terri lives in Leesburg, in the middle of the state in "lake country", and started her business because she herself had trouble finding paw paws for her own garden. I told her I wanted to grow paw paw to draw Zebra Swallowtails to my garden - they are the only host plant for these amazing butterflies - but that I'd heard they could be very tricky to grow considering they're a Florida native.

Terri helped me pick out one of the best dwarf paw paws (better suited to our small yard, as it will only grow to about 3 feet) and gave me a sheet describing the planting process. She even walked me through it, so when we planted our precious paw paw in the butterfly garden this evening, we felt comfortable following the very specific instructions.

The trick to paw paws is understanding they have a very deep tap root. While they may grow about a foot above ground during a growing season, their tap root can grow down to five feet or more. In other words, when you pick a place to plant a paw paw, you better be sure, because you're not going to be able to move it later. So, step one was digging a narrow deep hole in the right location - the paw paw can take full sun to full shade, although it flowers best in sun. We chose a partially shaded spot.

Paws paws must also have well-drained soil - this is perhaps the most important thing. The paw paw in the pot was actually planted and grown in sand. We happened to have some sand handy, so we back-filled the hole with sand about two-thirds of the way up, and the topped it off with some dirt. Terri made a point of telling me that it is very important not to add any kind of fertilizer; paw paws are delicate and easily burned. Even organic fertilizers should be avoided. We use very little fertilizer, though I do often add organic bone meal or blood meal to new transplants, so I was glad Terri shared this with me.

Before setting the plant in the hole, we had cut off the bottom of the pot with a knife, and split the pot on either side, again per Terri's instructions. Once the hole was filled with sand and dirt, we carefully pulled out the pot, one side at a time. This ensured that the fragile roots were not disturbed at all, giving the plant a better chance of establishing itself. We had watered the plant in the pot before planting so the sand would hold together, so there was no need to water it again.

Usually, once a native plant is in the ground, you can just water it for a few weeks to get it established and then ignore it. Paw paws, it seems, require a little bit more. We need to monitor the soil moisture every other day for the first six months, keeping it moist but not soggy. The foliage needs to be protected from full sun for the first year, so as the sun shifts position in the sky, it may be necessary to provide additional shade for the leaves. Terri provided lots of useful details, so I'm hopeful we may be successful.

If you're wondering why we're taking all this trouble for a rather nondescript looking plant, then you've never seen a Zebra Swallowtail butterfly. Click here for some pictures of this amazing creature and its caterpillar. It's a little late in the year to hope for eggs now in My Florida Backyard, plus I'd really like the plant to become established before caterpillars start munching on the leaves. This is a case where patience will be a virtue, so we'll just have to wait for our hoped-for payoff. Stay tuned!

P.S. Check back in the next few days for a post on my other fantastic find, the Candlestick Cassia!

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