Plant Profile: The Pawpaw

What is a Pawpaw

The pawpaw is the largest native edible fruit in North America, but chances are you’ve never heard of it. The pawpaw (Asimina triloba) has been largely forgotten in the forest, often known only to foragers and in folklore.

The pawpaw’s native range encompasses much of the eastern United States, including large portions of Missouri and Illinois. This understory tree is often found along creeks and streams, spreading by root suckers to form groves or thickets.

In spring, maroon-colored flowers give off a pungent smell to attract pollinators such as flies and beetles. The fruit emerges in late August to early September, resembling the shape of a potato with a yellowish green skin.

Pawpaws at the Garden

The Garden has several pawpaw patches at the main campus, the most well-known of which is in the Doris I. Schnuck Children’s Garden. There is also a small grove in the English Woodland Garden, and near the Dry Streambed Garden. You can also find the fruit growing along Brush Creek at Shaw Nature Reserve.

The Garden’s Temperate House is home to several of the plant’s more tropical relatives, the four-petal pawpaw (Asimina tetramera), bigflower pawpaw (Asimina obovata), and netted pawpaw (Asimina reticulata) which are all endemic to Florida.

How to Eat a Pawpaw

The pawpaw is a member of the custard apple family, with a taste similar to a banana or mango. The soft, custard-like texture of the pulp can be off-putting to some people, especially when trying a pawpaw for the first time. A quick shake of the tree will cause ripe fruits to fall to the ground, and they should be slightly soft to the touch.

pawpaw
A cross section of the pawpaw fruit. Notice the large seeds.

The fruit is often eaten raw, taking care to remove the numerous large seeds contained inside. The pulp can also be used in baked goods or ice cream, and has even been highlighted as an ingredient by some craft breweries.

The fruit bruises easily and is highly perishable, making it unlikely you’ll find pawpaw on grocery store shelves. It is a favorite of foragers who know where to look and may  closely guard the location of their favorite pawpaw patch. While we discourage our visitors from picking pawpaw on Garden grounds, staff working the Children’s Garden will share their haul if they can beat hungry wildlife to the harvest.

A Crash Course in Pawpaw Culture

Although not widely known the pawpaw has a substantial ‘cult’ following, due at least in part to its uniquely American history. Thomas Jefferson planted pawpaw at his historic Monticello home. Lewis and Clark documented their pawpaw diet while on their famous expedition across the western territories. The pawpaw also inspired a folk song, a festival and a recent book.

Aside from its common name, the pawpaw has several monikers. Poor man’s banana (for its history as a foraged fruit), banango (a combination of banana and mango), or based on the area in which it grows such as the Missouri banana, Ohio banana, or Indiana banana. One reporter even recently dubbed it the “Hipster Banana.” The pawpaw is also the official state native fruit of Ohio.

Because pawpaw is a native plant, you may even consider adding it to your own home landscape. Asimina triloba is considered both a “Plant of Merit” and “Tried and Trouble-free” by our Plant Finder resource.

 

 

Cassidy Moody, Digital Media Specialist

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