Sunday, November 6, 2016

Wild Fruit: The Pawpaw

This summer I had the event I’ve been waiting for – my pawpaw (Asimina triloba) trees had fruit and I harvested them. Pawpaw is a large native shrub (or small tree) in the custard-apple family (Annonaceae), a North American member of a largely tropical family. Despite its tropical heritage, pawpaw’s native range is large, extending all the way up to New York and west to Texas. It is a plant whose habitat is largely one of rich bottomlands - the moist, low areas adjacent to rivers and streams.

Pawpaw fruit from my trees
The flowers are small, maroon bells that bloom just before the long, droopy leaves appear. They are largely pollinated by flies that are attracted to their unpleasant odor. Pollination occurs most reliably when you have cross-pollination with at least two plants from different populations. Even that is iffy if the insects don’t help you out; some people resort to hand pollination. But this year was a success for me and I watched over a cluster of 3 fruits for several months, just waiting for the late summer to harvest them.

Spring flowers and early leaves

Someone recommended a new book about this very unique fruit and its history in America. Published in 2015, the book is Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit by Andrew Moore. At 245 pages plus an index of resources (and a recipe for ice cream), the book is an informative walk through the fruit’s history, the people that have tried to bring it to mainstream (and some that are making money off it), and a delightful description of the author’s travels through the native range in search of fruit to eat (and he does eat a lot!) and a story to tell.

The first thing to get through is the many different spellings of the common name: pawpaw, paw paw, papaw, poppaw, pappaw and more. Settlers to this land have been discovering, eating, and writing about this fruit from the beginning. Of course, Native Americans were using them even before that and had their own names for the plant. It’s clear that most everyone that tried them loved them. They were probably transported around by humans, and there are many towns named for pawpaw. Early explorers wrote about the many ways that Native Americans used them (besides fresh): dried, cooked into breads, soups and stews. They used the inner bark to make rope and string. The seeds were sometimes ground into powder and used as medicine.

There are local market records in the 1800s of selling pawpaws at markets, and in 1888 the American Horticultural Society praised the fruit for its potential, but attempts to bring the pawpaw into cultivation didn't happen until about 1916. In that year, the American Genetics Association held a contest to find the best pawpaws so that a breeding program could be started. From 230 different location entries, a winner from Ohio was selected. Alas, nothing came of it. Curiously, the author mentions that cultivation of native blueberries was just starting at the same time and look where they are today!

A portion of the book provides profiles and stories of people that have grown pawpaws and tried to get them out to the general public. The PawPaw Foundation was established in 1988, and there are several named cultivars available. At one point, Ocean Spray expressed interest in using them but they needed a large quantity of pulp. The largest orchard is in Maryland and contains 1000+ trees on 5 acres. Harvesting techniques (still by hand) are discussed along with seed germination tips. At this time, pawpaw usage remains a boutique item with large quantities going to high-end restaurants via rapid shipping methods. Kentucky State University has a dedicated research program. Pawpaw festivals celebrate the fruit and its possibilities every year with the largest in Ohio, a 3-day event! I’d love to try some pawpaw beer sometime – perhaps I’ll have to go one year.

Asimina triloba fall color
The final part of the book takes the reader on a mad dash through the areas where pawpaw grows. The author describes his travels in search of wild pawpaw patches and the people he met along the way. Some of the descriptions of places are very detailed; I may have to look for the roadsides he described in Williamsburg, VA the next time that I’m there.

If you live in the natural range of pawpaw, consider introducing one to your garden. It is the one and only host plant for the zebra swallowtail butterfly (if you need another reason). Remember to get two plants from different sources if you want fruit (planting seeds or seedlings will do the trick).

Zebra swallowtail (Walker County, GA)

I did try the fruit and it was rather unusual tasting but not an immediate hit for me.  I learned from reading this book that I probably should have let it ripen another day or two for best flavor. I will be just as excited next year to give it another try!


  1. So, how many years did it take for them to fruit? I had a looong conversation with someone last night about this very thing. Congratulations!

  2. I sometimes have a couple of fruit on one shorter shrub, but they are always taken by critters. The fall color is spectacular though.

  3. Congratulations!
    I've never eaten A. triloba fruit, but I did find some A. parviflora fruit. Quite tasty, if a little small.

  4. I know I have the zebra swallowtail at Stone Mountain, so they must have pawpaw trees there!
    It seems I remember reading that George Washington liked to eat pawpaws. If it's good enough for George...well, you know! :-)

  5. We observed several groves of pawpaw at Linwood Nature Preserve where Leslie Edwards led a hike (for the Redbud chapter of GNPS) last weekend. We wondered why there were no fruits. Thanks so much for sharing your experience with pawpaw; I'm looking forward to reading the book Moore book. I hope to encourage fruits on the trees I have in Toccoa; please let me know if you have suggestions. I always love your posts!!!

  6. Those fruit are spectacular!
    Good luck getting them to be riper... stupid possums and raccoons stripped my pear and persimmon, woulda got the asimina parviflora like usual, except I caged the shrub... My paw paws were tiny, and tasted nasty, but... I ate them anyway, Now... If I can just get the seed to grow...