Pawpaw: A Cold Hardy “Tropical” Fruit

Pawpaw tree, hardy tropical fruit, wonder fruit

Brief History of the Pawpaw Tree

The following 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.  This can make fruit production a bit tricky.  (That’s partly why I enjoy growing them so much.  I like the challenge).

paw paw fruit, paw paw cluster
Paw Paws can produce heavily.

Pawpaw trees which grow in the shade usually look more healthy than pawpaw trees which grow in full sun. However, trees in the shade usually bear 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. It is 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, being enjoyed by both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. It was also eaten by Lewis and Clark expedition.

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.  During her lifetime I never saw a pawpaw tree. I didn’t even know what this ‘mystery fruit’ from Arkansas looked, but now, I grow them for the great memories they tend to evoke.

Geographical Description

The pawpaw is native to Eastern North America. It 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 when a traveler noted the fruit being cultivated by American Indians (Staub).

Size and of Fruit

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.  The fruit is 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. Sometimes I enjoy getting a visitor to smell one of these flowers. I have not been able to smell anything since 2013. I’ll take a blossom in hand, inhale a deep, longing, whiff and say, “Mmm, smells like cherries!” Inevitably the visitor will also take a whiff. :)

The large fruit of the pawpaw is somewhat bean-shaped and can reach up to 6 inches in length. It can weigh in at little over a pound. Most fruit are much smaller, though it is not unusual to find fruit weighing 6 or 8 ounces.

Pawpaw Fruit can weigh in at over a pound.

The smooth skin of the pawpaw fruit 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. However, all but one fruit per cluster will normally 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 was part of many Native American 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). Today some people use the pawpaw fruit to flavor ice cream.

How to eat this Fruit

Pawpaws are usually eaten raw by peeling away the skin and discarding the many seeds, but they can also be used in breads, sweets, ices, and as a substitute for mangoes or bananas in baking.

Other Usages

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 done using the pawpaw leaf to deter insects. I am currently researching the use of green pawpaw leaves to deter squash bugs. This is because I have never found a squash bug eating a pawpaw tree. To do this, I am placing one or more green pawpaw leaves under each squash. Then I and check each morning to see if the squash bugs have left that particular squash.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this, and that perhaps I have sparked the interest in some individual in such a way that they might try planting a pawpaw tree of their own someday.

Growing Pawpaw Trees Thread in Green Country Seed Savers

For related reading see: Five Reasons to Plant a Pear Tree


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