Down In The Pawpaw Patch

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Published on: Aug. 2, 2002

Last revision: Nov. 12, 2010

Once well known to early explorers and settlers in Missouri, the pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba) is but a faint childhood memory for many. Some who know the old children's song by heart wouldn't know a pawpaw tree if they saw one.

For many years it has grown in obscurity throughout much of Missouri, tucked away in groves or "patches" in moist, cool hollows, in river bottoms and on fertile, wooded slopes beside streams. Like a fine old actor overlooked by a generation or two, the pawpaw is back in the limelight, attracting the interest of horticulturists, landscapers, commercial fruit growers and researchers.

The first written description of the pawpaw tree was recorded during DeSoto's expedition into the Mississippi Valley in 1541. However, fossil records indicate the pawpaw's ancestors were members of a tropical plant family and were present in North America millions of years before the arrival of humans.

DeSoto's expedition, and the aboriginal Americans who introduced them to the pawpaw tree, were attracted to its tasty, tropical-like fruit. The fruits are also called pawpaws, and they are the largest fruit native to North America. Aboriginal Americans are, in fact, credited by some with spreading the pawpaw across its present range, which covers most of the eastern half of the United States."Pickin' up pawpaws" was a much anticipated fall activity for many early settlers in Missouri, as well. Thelma Bilyeu, 87, who has written several books about growing up in the Ozarks, remembers gathering pawpaws near her home on Bull Creek.

"We lived on the creek, and there was lots of pawpaws," Bilyeu recalled. "And when they'd get ripe in the fall, we'd go pick buckets of them. They kind of taste a little like bananas. We didn't have much in the way of fruit like that then, and my mother just really loved them. That was a big deal always to go pawpaw hunting."

The fruit of the pawpaw grows in clusters along the branches of the tree and ripens in September or October in Missouri. It is first green, later turns yellow and finally becomes brownish purple. A pawpaw is shaped like a short, stout banana, hence its nickname, "Poor Man's Banana" or, in Missouri, the "Missouri Banana." Billy Joe Tatum, in her book Wild Foods Cookbook and Field Guide, describes them as looking "very much like smallish baking potatoes misplaced in a tree."

Wildlife, including opossum, raccoons, quail, turkeys, eastern kingbirds, catbirds, robins, veeries

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