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Pawpaws, The other "Fruit of the Gods"

I'm not sure when I first heard of Pawpaws. I was raised three thousand miles west of Delaware in southern Oregon and the far north-western corner of California, so perhaps it was from my grandpa Sam, who was born in Missouri (or maybe it was Arkansas, he wasn't sure.) In any case, I've almost always been aware of pawpaws but I really had no ideal what a pawpaw was. I've lived in Delaware now for fifty years and for much of that time I assumed that pawpaws grew somewhere else, but I didn't know where.


Fifteen years or more ago I planned a week long bicycle trip for the Boy Scout troop I work with. We would travel the old Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal, starting at Cumberland, Maryland and we would bike all the way down the tow path to Great Falls, Maryland, about a 50 mile ride. During the planning I noticed that we would be passing near the town of Paw Paw, West Virginia and we would have to traverse the Paw Paw canal tunnel. Hmmmmmm? We made the trip (I drove the chase vehicle) in the first week of August and somewhere near the end of our journey I spied my first ever pawpaw fruit. It was still green and quite hard, but no matter, I picked it anyway and took it home to show it off. That really piqued my interest in pawpaws.


At Abbott's Mill Nature Center I sometimes do programs that have to do with trees. All kinds of trees. Were there any pawpaw trees in the AMNC woods? Yes, I was told, but nobody could tell me exactly where. "Somewhere near Blair's Pond." Then a friend in nearby Hillsboro, Maryland mentioned that he had a grove of pawpaws "down near the stream" and I was welcome to bring a shovel and dig one up. "Wow, a pawpaw of my very own?"

I finally found the Blair's Pond Pawpaw patch several years ago, after learning to identify their leaves, which are over a foot long, a vibrant green and among the largest in the eastern forest. The huge leaves tend to spread out near the end of branches, reminding me somewhat of a tropical parasol.

Pawpaw leaves

Until this year I was never in the pawpaw patch when the trees were fruiting. We checked it out in early July and they not only did have fruit, but we also discovered two more small groves of young trees that I had been unaware of. Hurray!

July 2021 - Pawpaw fruit, about 1 1/2" in diameter and 3-4" long
July 2021 - Pawpaw fruit, about 2" in dia. and 4" long.

Common Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is the northernmost New World representative of a chiefly tropical family, which includes the popular tropical fruits Annona, Custard-apple, Sugar-apple, and Soursop. The wild fruit was once harvested, but the supply has now decreased greatly due to the clearing of forests. The small crop is generally consumed only by wildlife, such as opossums, squirrels, raccoons, and birds. Attempts have been made to cultivate Common Pawpaw as a fruit tree. First recorded by the DeSoto expedition in the lower Mississippi Valley in 1541. The name Common Pawpaw is from the Arawakan name of Papaya, an unrelated tropical American fruit. https://www.wildflower.org/plants


Pawpaw trees blossom around here in late April or early May, with a large bell-shaped flower over an inch across and very dark maroon color, and with a faint but disagreeable odor. They are pollinated by flies and beetles, but to produce fruit a pawpaw blossom needs to be cross-pollinated with an unrelated tree. No kissin' cousins allowed.

Pawpaw blossom - photo Stefan Bloodworth

The trees can grow from seeds, but they also spread from rhizomes, rootstalks or suckers that send up new growth. So, a pawpaw patch is essentially all one big plant, and are thus related. I believe that trees that grow from seeds would all be considered unrelated, but it would take about 7 years for it to produce fruit.

At home near Woodside we have that single pawpaw tree, now over 10 feet tall, that I got from my friend in Maryland some years ago. In each of the past two years it has produced just one (1) pawpaw, but this year we had double the crop (LOL) !! I have no idea how that happened, there must be other trees somewhere nearby, but never the less we are pleased with the result.


You can harvest the fruit when the skin darkens with small spots and the now yellow fruit falls easily with a gentle shaking of the tree, usually sometime in September in Kent or Sussex counties. A rule of thumb is; "When the goldenrods are in bloom,

The pawpaws will ripen soon."

A very nice pawpaw from our tree, about 3" by 5".

Fruit that ripens and falls naturally from the tree doesn't last long because squirrels, 'possums and raccoons can smell them from far away. This year the fruit on our tree at home ripened the second week of September, but the fruit on the Blair's Pond trees, being heavily shaded, are a couple of weeks behind. Cut one open and the flesh looks somewhat custardy with two or more large seeds. Don't eat the seeds or the skin, but the flesh is quite delicious, tasting somewhat like a cross between a banana and a mango with a hint of vanilla. Mmmmmmm, the other "Fruit of the Gods."

2020 - Sliced pawpaw, a little too ripe - Just close your eyes and dig in.

Pawpaws are very nutritious fruits, an excellent source of potassium and several essential amino acids and they are quite high in vitamin C, magnesium, iron, copper and manganese. And, Annonaceous acetogenin compounds found in pawpaws are among the most potent cancer fighting substances yet discovered.

200 - Pawpaw fruit - two large seeds in this one.

The best way to enjoy a pawpaw is to just cut it in half lengthwise and spoon it into your mouth. Pawpaw's flavor doesn't hold up well to heating, so it's best to use it in un-cooked recipes, such as cold or frozen desserts like smoothies, sorbets, frozen yogurt or Philadelphia style ice cream (no eggs) with cream, milk, and sugar, and the pectin from the pawpaw acting as a thickener. I can't wait to collect enough pawpaws to try that. And there is even a brewery in Zanesville, Ohio that makes "Weasel Paw Pawpaw Pale Ale." (Hmmmm? How long would it take me to drive to Zanesville?)


Hint: I made small rat-wire cages to put around our fruit to protect them from the thieving wildlife, especially after they ripen.

Pawpaw fruit, locked up in solitary confinement

WAY DOWN YONDER IN THE PAWPAW PATCH


Where, oh, where is little Susie?

Where, oh, where is little Susie?

Where, oh, where is little Susie?

Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch.


Come on boys, let's go find her

Come on boys, let's go find her

Come on boys, let's go find her

Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch.


Pickin' up pawpaws, put 'em in your pocket

Pickin' up pawpaws, put 'em in your pocket

Pickin' up pawpaws, put 'em in your pocket

Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch.


Traditional American Folk Song



If you'd like to learn more about this lovely native fruit, pick up a copy of:

Pawpaw, In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit by Andrew Moore. (https://www.chelseagreen.com/product/pawpaw/)


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I'LL BET YOU DIDN'T KNOW...


1. The Pawpaw is the largest edible fruit native to the United States.

2. The Zebra Swallowtail, Protographium marcellus, butterfly's caterpillars feed exclusively on Pawpaw leaves.

Zebra Swallowtail - photo courtesy Wikipedia

Sources: Photos by myself, unless otherwise indicated.

Andrew Moore: "PAWPAW, in Search of America's Forgotten Fruit."

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