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Pawpaws, persimmons and other fruits beloved by wildlife

Eileen Hornbaker/ USFWS • Pawpaw trees, the largest edible fruit trees native to North America, produce greenish-blackish fruit, usually three to six inches long.

By Frances Lamberts

The pawpaw tree had a boom harvest this year, its edible fruits falling for more than three weeks, well into September. Many being more than three inches long and more than two inches thick with sweet, orange colored, custardy flesh, Donald Peattie (in Natural History of Eastern and Central North America) gave this tree another, suggestive common name, wild banana.

Pawpaws have had their enthusiasts from the days of the Catawbas and other Indian native peoples in the eastern states, to the present, and among our wild animals “opossums are great pawpaw eaters,” he states.

The amber-colored, sweet fruits of Persimmon trees, with thick, yellow flesh, also have been falling for weeks. Variable in time of ripening the fruit – some in August, some in December, others holding some of it until spring, they also were an important part of diet among the Indian peoples. Yet, Peattie states, “the persimmon will never mean to us what it does to wild animals. It is eaten by birds, notably the bobwhite, by flying squirrrels and foxes, by raccoons and skunks and white-tailed deer, and above all by the opossum. When Audubon came to paint … oppossums, he showed them devouring the strange, puckery-looking fruits, high in the branches of this grand old tree.”

Others of the soft-fruit flowering trees and shrubs ripen at seasonally different times. Some, like the wild roses are yet retaining their hips while others have long shed or still are ripening the fruit. Bunches of red berries on the flowering dogwood, for example, will provide winter food for birds while the alternate-leaf dogwood now is devoid of its many, bluish-black berries. The serviceberry and black mulberry, their fruits desirable for jams and jellis, gave these up to birds, mainly, months ago. But the Carolina buckthorn and winterberry holly trees are loaded with still-ripening berries on which robins and other birds will feast in October and late winter. All its blue-black berry clusters have been stripped from the arrowwood shrub while the chokeberry still is holding on to its glossy fruits.

All kinds of birds, from wild turkeys to woodpeckers, blue birds and others gain sustenance from these and related woody plants, not to forget our common animal wildlife such as chipmunks, squirrels, skunks and raccoon, mice and other mammals, and butterflies, moths and other insects which they nourish.

Truly, as Henry Thoreau observed, Nature has many mouths to feed. In the interest of self-preservation in having seeds widely dispersed she does it well, to the benefit of much other life.