Brief History of the Pawpaw Tree
The following Pawpaw article was written by Ron Cook of Moodys, Oklahoma
Pawpaw trees are an endangered species and as such, are very hard to find in most States, due to the deforestation of North America.
Pawpaws are typically an under story tree, found growing from the forest floor in subdued sunlight. Young pawpaw trees cannot tolerate prolonged periods of direct sunlight and therefore are unable to repopulate an area where the parent trees have been cleared for pasture or for urban development. As a result, the original native stands of pawpaw trees that once lined our river banks from Northern Florida all the way to Southern Canada are almost non-existent.
Where Do You Plant a Pawpaw Tree?
In fact if not for the diligence of a few wise country folk through the 8 decades passed since the Great Depression, we probably would not have many of these native trees left. Pawpaw seedlings out in the open must be grown under a shade cloth for the first two years of their existence. (I use burlap coffee bean sacks staked out between three rebars placed on the South and West sides of each seedling for the first two years after I plant them).
The pawpaw trees bear more heavily if planted in full sunlight but must be protected from direct light for the first two years of their life, until they are old enough to tolerate full sunlight. That makes them kind of tricky to get much fruit production from. (That’s partly why I enjoy growing them so much. I like the challenge).
Pawpaw trees grown in the shade are usually healthier looking than pawpaw trees grown in full sun but trees grown in the shade tend to bear very little fruit. Sunlight acts as a signal to the mature trees that there is open land nearby that needs to be populated by more pawpaw trees, so those trees grown in full sun produce more fruit. Shade acts as a signal to the mature trees that there is heavy competition for sunlight and fruit production slows down.
Care and Maintenance
If maintained properly, pawpaw trees can be very rewarding. This is because pawpaw trees bear the largest fruit of any native tree in North America and are the only member of the tropical Annonaceae family to grow in this part of the world. The pawpaw has a long history in the United States; it was apparently enjoyed by both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. It was eaten by Lewis and Clark on their journeys as well.
During the Great Depression, the pawpaw was frequently consumed as a substitute for other fruits and was dubbed the “poor man’s banana”. My grandma Fannie spoke longingly of these fruits in her old age. She was born in Starville, Arkansas on March 21st of 1898. She pronounced the name of this place as, “Star villee” It was near Ben Hur, Arkansas and can no longer be found on modern-day maps. I never got to see a pawpaw tree during her lifetime, and never even knew what this ‘mystery fruit’ from Arkansas looked like back then, but now, I grow them for the great memories they tend to evoke.
The pawpaw is native to Eastern North America and grows from Northern Florida to Southern Canada and as far west as the States of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska. They typically grow in forested areas, where they can be found in the understory near riverbeds. Pawpaws require plenty of water to sustain their large leaves but don’t tolerate swamps or standing water.
The fruit of the pawpaw was a component of the Eastern American Indian’s diet; indeed, the Shawnee even had a “pawpaw month” dedicated to the fruit in their calendar (Austin).
The fruit was often etymologically confused with the papaya by Europeans and early settlers, and also showed a discrepancy of names. The first mention of the pawpaw dates to Hernando de Soto’s 1540 Mississippi expedition, where a fellow traveler noted the fruit being cultivated by American Indians (Staub).
Size and Descriptors
Pawpaw trees tend to be smaller than other trees (less than 30 feet high) and often grow in patches. They are tropical in appearance, with long, dark green, drooping leaves that can stretch up to a foot long and up to 6″ inches wide. When grown in the sun, they often assume a pyramid-like shape. Pawpaw trees lend themselves well to urban landscaping because of their small stature and pruned appearance. Not to mention the fruits are of excellent quality.
The pawpaw’s small flowers have three lobes and are a dark brownish maroon color when mature. The pawpaw blossoms’ fragrance mimics rotting flesh. These blossoms are pollinated by flies, not by honey bees. I always enjoy getting a newcomer to smell one of these flowers as I have not been able to smell anything since 2013, I’ll take a blossom in hand, take a deep, longing, whiff and say, “Mmm, smells like cherries!” Inevitably, the person I am with will take a whiff as well.
The large fruit of the pawpaw is somewhat bean-shaped and can reach up to 6 inches in length and weigh a little over one pound, but this is highly unusual. Most fruits are much smaller, though it is not unusual to find fruit weighing 6 or 8 ounces.
The smooth skin of the pawpaw fruits ripen from a soft green to a bruised-looking yellow and sometimes grow in small clusters on the trees. The clusters have a many fingered appearance as young fruit sets. However, normally all but one fruit per cluster will abort as the season progresses, leaving only the best and healthiest fruit to produce seeds.
The pawpaw’s flesh is creamy-yellow, custard-like, and fragrant. The pawpaw fruit has a pleasant aroma and a very sweet taste, somewhere between banana, mango, pineapple, and pear. Because of its wide range, the pawpaw found its way into many American Indian diets. It is believed that the American Indians planted and cultivated the pawpaw. The Iroquois mashed the fruit into small, dried cakes or dried the fruit by itself. The dried cakes were sometimes soaked in water and used as a sauce or mixed with cornbread (Moerman). Some people use the pawpaw fruit to flavor ice cream.
Eating the Pawpaw
Pawpaws are usually eaten raw by peeling away the skin and discarding the many seeds, but can also be used in breads, sweets, ices, and as a substitute for mangoes or bananas in baking.
The Cherokee used the bark of the pawpaw to make ropes and string, which was sometimes used to string fish (Moerman; Austin). Tribes have used the seeds as a powder to deter head lice. Currently, there are studies being made using the pawpaw leaf to deter insects. I am currently researching the effectiveness of using green pawpaw leaves to deter squash bugs, as I have yet to find a squash bug eating a pawpaw tree. To do this, I am placing one or more green pawpaw leaves under each squash and will check each morning to see if the squash bugs have left that particular squash.
I hope you have enjoyed reading this, and that maybe in this writing I have sparked the interest in some individual in such a way that they might try planting a pawpaw tree of their own someday.