Pawpaws: Resilient, Delectable Natives
As a young girl, my friends and I enjoyed singing this folk tune: Where, oh where, is dear little Nellie? Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch. Sound familiar? At the time, I thought “pawpaw” was a silly made-up name for a fictitious tree. It was many, many years before I actually saw a living pawpaw tree and tasted its rather unusual fruit. Once I did, I was smitten. Read on to find out more about the “American Custard Apple.”
What’s a pawpaw? The pawpaw tree, known as Asimina triloba in the scientific world, is classified as a deciduous tree with semi-tropical attributes. The pawpaw is an indigenous plant in 26 states in the eastern and midwestern U.S., including Virginia. This distinctive species, which belongs to the Annonaceae family, is an understory tree that typically grows to a height of 5-8 meters. It produces light green fruit called pawpaws, the largest edible native fruit grown in this country. The soft, golden flesh of this fruit is reminiscent of custard, and its unique flavor is a delicious combination of mango and banana. No wonder the lyrics of that folk song refer to children collecting this yummy fruit and placing them in the front pocket of their aprons: Pickin’ up pawpaws and puttin’ ‘em in your pocket. If your ears aren’t ringing yet, here’s a delightful version of that song.
Where will you find pawpaw trees? The pawpaw is often found near streambeds, rivers, and floodplains because of its preference for fertile, moist soil. It will also grow on hillsides and slopes, if the soil is rich and sufficiently deep and wet. When mature, the pawpaw tree can tolerate plenty of sun, but it’s a more common sight in the partial shade of hardwood forests. The pawpaw will not thrive in poor soil or areas with direct or excessive wind exposure. Pawpaw trees tend to grow in patches or thickets, due to clonal spreading that occurs when their root suckers extend outward from existing plants to form new trees. Given the right conditions, pawpaw trees multiply gradually, but prolifically. If well-established, they may slow down the growth of other dominant tree species, such as oaks and hickories.
How do you know it’s a pawpaw? The small to medium-sized pawpaw tree, shaped like a pyramid, is sometimes referred to as a shrub. The thin, bumpy bark of a pawpaw tree is grey with noticeable cracks and warts on its outer covering. When damaged or bruised, the bark exudes a foul odor, which may explain why many forest animals stay away from this tree. The dark green shiny leaves on a pawpaw are fairly large with an oblong shape: 25 cm long and 10 cm wide. Leaves are wider at their outer end and taper to a pronounced point where they connect to a branch. These are simple, alternate leaves with prominent veins and midrib arranged in a spiral-like pattern that droops downward, as if reaching toward the ground below. When fall arrives, pawpaw leaves turn a beautiful golden yellow color, which makes it easy to recognize them from afar.
What about the flowers and fruit? Pawpaw flowers are deep burgundy at first and then turn a maroonish-brown color when fully mature. These small (diameter of 3-5 cm), perfect flowers (both male and female reproductive parts are present) with six petals and three sepals appear early in the springtime. Unlike the blossoms on many other trees, pawpaw flowers are not profuse and have a slightly unpleasant odor. Each flower has more than one ovary, so one flower can produce several pawpaws, which ripen in the fall. Pawpaw fruit resembles the shape of a mango, somewhat like a flattened oval covered in light green skin. As clumps of fruit grow and increase in size (up to 15 cm in length), their weight may cause sagging tree branches. When ready for consumption, the ever-softening pawpaws become yellowish and have dark spots on their skin. Inside the fruit, two rows of big black seeds are embedded in squishy, deep yellow pulp. Each pawpaw has 10-12 seeds, each one the size of a thumbnail.
Not everyone likes pawpaws, but they definitely appeal to my taste buds. The creamy texture melts in your mouth as the fresh, tropical flavor is released, giving way to dreams of the Caribbean. Besides eating them raw, you can substitute pawpaws for bananas when baking, or process them for ice cream, a scrumptious treat! If you cook with pawpaws, use recipes that call for little or no heat because high temperatures can ruin the special taste of this fruit. By the way, pawpaws are high in nutritional value. Like bananas, oranges, and apples, they offer generous amounts of vitamin C, magnesium, potassium, and amino acids, but pawpaw fruit provide comparatively more protein. Pawpaws are also a good source of dietary fiber.
How do you cultivate pawpaws? Root suckers from a pawpaw patch can be used to start new trees, but the success rate is low. If seeds are used, they must be stratified (kept cold) for 3-4 months in a moist environment (e.g., with sphagnum moss). Field-planted seeds will not emerge until the following summer, and those plants may not produce flowers or fruit for another five years or more. For best luck with new pawpaw trees, buy container-grown seedlings (not bare roots) of recommended varieties, such as ‘Davis’, ‘Overleese’, ‘Prolific, ‘Sunflower’, or ‘Taylor’ from a reputable nursery. Spring is the time to plant container-grown seedlings.
Pawpaw trees need fertile, well-drained, slightly acidic (pH 6-7) soil to thrive. Young trees should be spaced 2½ – 3 meters apart in rows that are at least 6 meters wide, so they will have ample room to grow and reproduce. The trunk of a pawpaw tree should be surrounded by a generous layer of mulch (straw or wood chips) for weed control and moisture retention. Remember not to let a young seedling dry out as it gets established in its new setting. To produce fruit, a pawpaw tree requires cross pollination from another unrelated pawpaw tree. Unfortunately, their foul odor keeps most bees away, so home gardeners often hand-pollinate their own trees.
Hurray for the pawpaw! It’s one of those rare plants that deer and rabbits avoid, mainly because of the somewhat smelly bark, twigs, leaves, and flowers. Birds, squirrels, foxes, and black bears do enjoy eating pawpaw fruit, but they are generally not destructive to the tree as a whole. Most insects steer clear of this tree, but it happens to be the only host plant for larvae of the stunning zebra swallowtail. If you love watching those butterflies, as I do, then this might be a great choice for your yard. In addition to its other winning characteristics, the pawpaw is relatively disease-free, so no chemicals are needed to keep it healthy. Promising new research also suggests that substances in pawpaw leaves and twigs might have anti-cancer properties. Learn more about this fascinating species at the Pawpaw Research Center, Kentucky State University Cooperative Extension Project.
“This Once-Obscure Fruit Is On Its Way to Becoming Pawpaw-Pawpular,” NPR.org
“Specialty Crop Profile: Pawpaw,” https://www.pubs.ext.vt.edu/content/dam/pubs_ext_vt_edu/2906/2906-1319/2906-1319_pdf.pdf
“Native Fruit and Nut Trees and Shrubs of the Virginia Mountains and Piedmont,” https://www.pubs.ext.vt.edu/content/dam/pubs_ext_vt_edu/ANR/ANR-23/ANR-23NP_pdf.pdf
“Fourth International Pawpaw Conference held at Kentucky State University,” https://kysu.edu/2016/09/08/fourth-international-pawpaw-conference-held-at-kentucky-state-university/
“Growing Pawpaws,” ag.purdue.edu