Pawpaws: America’s Forgotten Fruit

The arrival of September brings the beginning of apple-picking season, but apples aren’t the only fall fruit that’s ripening at this time of year. Here in Missouri, there’s a lesser-known seasonal treat that’s well-loved by those who have encountered it: the pawpaw fruit.

The Pawpaw is Native to Missouri

Asimina triloba, or pawpaw, is a small understory tree native to moist, rich bottomland forests, wooded slopes, and stream banks throughout much of the eastern United States. Pawpaws often form patches or thickets by underground root suckers, meaning that the trees in a patch are usually all genetic clones. Dark maroon, cup-shaped blooms hang upside-down from the branches in spring and are pollinated by insects.

Pawpaw flowers hang from a tree in early May at Shaw Nature Reserve. Photo by Matilda Adams.

A Flavorful Fruit

But if you have heard heard of the pawpaw tree, it’s likely because of its fruit. The green, oblong fruits grow in clusters and can reach up to 5″ long. When the fruits ripen in early fall, the outer skin may turn various shades of pale yellow-green to orange, and they give off a sweet aroma reminiscent of tropical fruits. The yellow pulp has a soft texture, and the taste has been described as a mixture of banana, papaya, mango, and pineapple, sometimes with a melon or bitter aftertaste. They are most comparable to bananas in terms of nutrition but have higher levels of calcium, magnesium, vitamin C, monounsaturated fat, and protein.

Pawpaw fruits begin to ripen at the end of August.

When they are eaten, the fruits are often enjoyed raw or used to make ice creams, puddings, pies, and other sweets. Because pawpaw fruit over-ripens quickly and bruises easily, it does not ship well and is not commercially available in its fresh form. This is one fruit you can’t get at the store, and wildlife (e.g., raccoons, squirrels and opossums) eagerly seek out the fruits and often beat humans to the harvest in natural areas.

A pawpaw’s insides are soft, yellow, and custard-like, with large seeds nestled in the flesh of the fruit. Photo by Cassidy Moody.

Add a Pawpaw to Your Landscape

Because the fruit can be so tricky to come by, fans of the pawpaw who have a yard or garden would do well to add a pawpaw tree to their landscape for easier access. Several cultivars have been selected over the years for their superior taste. The most popular include ‘NC-1’ (an early-ripening selection), ‘Shenandoah’ (good flavor and smaller seeds compared to the species), and ‘Sunflower’ (a late-ripening selection with sweet, yellow fruit).

The tasty and nutritious fruit isn’t the only reason to consider adding a pawpaw to your garden. The pawpaw is a Plant of Merit and is native to Missouri. In fall, the tree adds vibrant color to the landscape when its leaves turn shades of bright yellow. The foliage is also the larval food source for the zebra swallowtail, which lays its eggs on Asimina species. In much of this butterfly’s native range (including Missouri), Asimina triloba is the only host plant it can utilize.

Here in Missouri, the zebra swallowtail depends on the pawpaw tree in its larval stage. Photo by Matilda Adams.

A pawpaw tree turns a deep golden color in the fall.

A Foraging Frenzy

Although it is not widely known, the pawpaw has a significant cult following. In recent years, it has been creeping into the local food scene in St. Louis, finding a place on the menu at local Ozark cuisine restaurant Bulrush and being featured in a number of craft beers.

Note: Some people may have a sensitivity to pawpaw fruit when handling or eating it. If you have never eaten a pawpaw before, only try a little bit at first to make sure you are not sensitive.

Justine Kandra

Kristina Schall DeYong
Digital Media Specialist

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