The Pawpaw

I’ve been reading a great book lately entitled PAWPAW – In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit by Andrew Moore (see cover below).  I’ve always enjoyed growing and observing pawpaws (Asimina triloba) and recall seeing many large ones growing natively throughout the woods in SW Michigan when I worked at Fernwood Botanical Garden & Nature Preserve in Niles, MI (1996-1998).  I ate my first pawpaw in those October woods and it will always be a cherished memory.  I’ve been observing and photographing the same specimens that I’ve seen at the Chicago Botanic Garden, Olbrich Botanical Gardens, Longenecker Gardens (UW-Arboretum) and the specimen we have at RBG.  I appreciate the sub-tropical appearance of these smaller woody trees and have enjoyed the fruit on many occasions in the recent past.  This book gives some great information and also reveals a near cultish following that this tree has amassed over many years.  I’ve been inspired by this book to further explore growing, promoting and enjoying this native tree.  My photos included here show the flowers, fruits and give some impression of the form and foliage of the plant as well (particularly in later fall).  Some interesting factoids on this “forgotten fruit” are included below:

The pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is the only member of the custard apple family (Annonaceae) not confined to the tropics.  Also called frost banana, Indian banana, bandango, custard apple, prairie banana and poor man’s banana, the pawpaw is the largest native fruit in North America.  The interesting maroon flowers are pollinated by carrion flies and beetles and the pawpaw is also the only larval host plant for the zebra swallowtail butterfly.  George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew pawpaws and noted how late they leafed out (to avoid frost?) and how there were almost no pests or problems with this small tree.  Pawpaws have a 56 million year history and the fruits were long used by Native Americans either fresh, dried and/or cooked in to breads, soups, stews and drinks.  The Cherokee used the durable, fibrous inner bark of this tree to make strong rope and string.  The fruit slowly ripens in late summer and the difference between under ripe and over ripe is very narrow.  They are best eaten fresh when they are slightly soft and just starting to detach from the trees (very late summer).  The “shelf life” of pawpaws is severely limited so the window for acquisition is quite tight but worth the effort.  The seeds are quite large but easy to locate and remove.  The taste is described by many as a mango/banana custard and my experiences would be similar in terms of taste.  I’m still finishing the book but was inspired to seek out and share some of my photos of this interesting native fruit!  There is lots of research and information out there and developments in selecting varieties for superior fruit production, taste, etc. continue to this day.


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