Early autumn is the season of the apple, the time when the home orchard is heavy with fruit a full five months after the bees showed up to pollinate all those blossoms.

Apples, and their cousins, pears, are emblematic of the season, but both are fussy and rely on a lot of care to shepherd them safely to the fruit bowl.

As much as I love these pomes, I am also drawn at this time of year to three other fruit-bearing plants that share a like number of traits: They appear strangely tropical but aren’t; they don’t need the spraying regime of apples or pears; and they all deserve greater use in Mid-Atlantic gardens.


The native pawpaw delivers tropical looking fruit in early fall. (Andrew Moore)

The pawpaw is a native small tree, sometimes a multi-stemmed big shrub, that would be valued for its ornament even if it didn’t have spectacular fruit in late September.

The fruits are large, about the size of a plump sweet potato, but are oddly hard to see because they are a light yellow and grow deep in the branches. If the fruits give a little when you squeeze them, they are ready and can be twisted off the tree. They will drop a few days later, at which point you can scurry out and grab them before animals find them.

Pawpaws ripen off the tree, and the rind soon begins to develop dark splotches. Cut them in half and eat them with a spoon. The brown seeds are large but navigable. The flesh tastes of banana-flavored custard, with just a hint of grittiness. They are delicious.

The pawpaw is found along river banks, telling the gardener they like moist (not wet) soil and should be watered from time to time in their first two years, as well as during prolonged dry periods. Its leaves are large, agreeably droopy and have a gray-green cast to them. Decoratively, they work just as well as sweetbay magnolia, redbud, dogwood or amelanchier. They are also the host plant of the gorgeous zebra swallowtail butterfly.

Pawpaws are tap-rooted and don’t transplant well, so don’t think you can harvest them from the wild. If you buy them in one-gallon containers, they will fruit a little after five years, and then produce exponentially more fruit with each passing year. They grow happily in a site of full sun or partial shade, though you will need more than one for cross pollination and good fruit set. It is the hardiest of the three, growing wild in New England and the Midwest.

Asian persimmon

Asian persimmon. (iStock)

This is another lovely small tree, growing to about 15 to 20 feet high and as much in breadth. It benefits from a little pruning when young to keep the canopy balanced and open. The fruit is glimpsed as hard green orbs over the summer but swells and ripens in late summer. Most popular varieties are in shades of orange or red and most do not have the astringency of the native persimmon, nor do they need a frost or two to sweeten them. The native persimmon is much hardier and grows in northern states.

Asian persimmon fruits ripen successively on the tree — they look like globe tomatoes but with much thicker skin — and can be harvested when they yield a little. They will then ripen indoors. Fully ripe fruit become duller and soft. Harvesting may be a race against birds and squirrels, but there are enough fruits on a mature tree to share. Popular varieties include Fuyugaki, Fuyu and Jiro. Hachiya is a popular astringent variety, but loses its bitterness with ripeness. In its native Japan, some 1,000 varieties of Asian persimmon have been developed over the centuries.

The leaves are a deep glossy green color and in a good autumn turn an attractive maroon and orange. They don’t need a partner to fruit but will take five or six years to bear well and are considered hardy only to the USDA’s Plant Hardiness Zone 7, with average winter lows down to 0 degrees, and extends from Virginia to coastal New Jersey and Long Island.

Kiwi fruit

Tender or fuzzy kiwi fruit. (iStock)

Kiwis are vigorous woody vines commonly known as either hardy or tender kiwis. The one to grow — with a couple of provisos — is the tender (or fuzzy) kiwi, which produces the type of fuzzy orange-brown fruit you find in the supermarket. This species, in spite of its name, has proven quite hardy in protected gardens in the greater Washington area, which are in the warmer half of Zone 7 (winter lows of 5 to 10 degrees) but would be a riskier proposition to the north and west, where you could grow the hardy kiwi. The fuzzy kiwi is known botanically as Actinidia deliciosa. The hardier species, with smaller green fruit, is Actinidia arguta.

Generally, the vines come as male or female (some varieties have flowers of both), so you will have to plant a male variety for the fruiting vine to yield.

The one drawback with this vine is that it is extremely vigorous once mature. This trait makes the kiwi vine great for covering a large structure and providing deep shade in summer. However, the arbor or fence that supports the vine must be sturdy enough to carry the load.

The vine benefits from a pruning regime. In winter dormancy, lateral branches should be thinned and cut back. In summer, to direct energy into fruit development, branches should be regularly trimmed back to about six leaves beyond developing fruit. This is the same pruning regime for wisteria, but the payoff is in loads of scrumptious fruit. Other than Japanese beetles, which tend to be less of a problem in the city, the kiwi vine is not troubled with the array of pests and diseases afflicting apples, pears, peaches or grapes.

All three of these “tropicals” will set your garden apart and offer rich material for party conversation.