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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 and red-eyed vireos, relish this fruit. To beat the animals to the fruit, some people pick it while it's still on the tree. Neal Peterson, founder of the Pawpaw Foundation and a grower for more than 20 years, recommends this practice, adding that the fruit is already at, or past, its peak once it drops from the tree. Ripeness, he said, cannot be judged by the color. The only dependable sign is a slight softening of the fruit.

Other writers believe that the fruit is not ripe until it has changed color - either yellowish green or purple - suggesting that ripeness in the pawpaw may be a matter of personal taste, as it is with bananas.

Once it has begun to soften, the fruit has a shelf life of only a few days. If picked and refrigerated early, this can be extended for up to three weeks, and the fruit will still ripen normally once it is returned to room temperature.

The flavors of pawpaws vary considerably in wild varieties. Information from Kentucky State University, one of the schools in the forefront of developing the pawpaw for commercial growth, characterizes the flavor of wild pawpaws as ranging from awful to sublime. Most pawpaws taste good, some are truly wonderful, and a few are better for throwing than for eating."

The more sublime flavors of wild varieties or of select, grafted varieties, have been described as, "reminiscent of papaya with pineapple overtones, with bits of banana and mango;" "a complex combination of tropical fruit flavors" or, more simply, "a creamy mixture of banana and pineapple."

Nutritionally, pawpaws exceed apple, peach, and grape in most vitamins, minerals, amino acids and food energy value.

While many people enjoy eating this fruit raw, it has been incorporated into many recipes over time, including cakes, pies, cookies, custard, ice cream, sorbet, mousse, jellies and smoothies. It can be substituted as well in equal parts for bananas in old favorites, such as nut bread or pudding. The flesh purees easily and freezes nicely for storage.

For all recipes, cut the fruit, scoop out the flesh and remove the two rows of inedible, large, brown seeds. Here is a representative recipe from Wild Edibles of Missouri by Jan Phillips:

Although most people can eat pawpaws without complications, some experience severe stomach and intestinal pain. Others experience a skin irritation that typically lasts only a few minute from handling the fruit.

Early interest in developing the pawpaw for commercial fruit production languished after World War II, but has continued to grow since Peterson begin his work with this plant in the l970s. Several universities have developed research programs to explore its potential. Patrick Byers of the Southwest Missouri State University Fruit Experiment Station in Mountain Grove said the commercial cultivation of pawpaws is already in progress in Missouri, with field trials beginning in 2003.

Eight cultivated varieties were selected in 2001 on the basis of fruit size, quality, rapid maturity after planting and their ability to withstand handling and to thrive in mineral, upland soil. These were grafted on rootstock from northern Arkansas in 2002 and will be transplanted to orchards in Mount Vernon and Mountain Grove in spring 2003.

Plant breeders have recently taken a renewed interest in this species not only as a fruit-producing tree, but also as an ornamental. The slender, fine-branched tree seldom grows taller than 30 feet. Its large smooth green leaves, almost a foot long, droop slightly, giving it a decidedly tropical appearance. Brown-to-maroon flowers, up to 2 inches across, appear in early spring. Besides its ornamental value, the pawpaw makes a suitable addition to butterfly gardens because it is the exclusive larval host plant of the zebra swallowtail. As a native tree, it is already adapted to our climate and soil conditions and is bothered by few pests.

For home growers, pawpaw trees are available from many conventional and native plant nurseries. Peterson recommends spring planting for container-grown stock and avoiding the use of bare root plants.

For those wishing to start their own plants, pawpaws can be grown from seeds gathered from ripened fruits. However, the flavor of the fruits may vary from the parent tree. These seeds can be overwintered in the field or cleaned and immediately refrigerated for 100 days in airtight, plastic bags with some moistened sphagnum moss to keep the seeds from dehydrating. If planted in the fall, the shoots will not appear until the following July or August, although the seed will have already sent down a 10-inch long taproot.

Cuttings from the pawpaw are difficult to root, and transplants of this tree from the wild do not do well. Young trees taken from a grove are often root suckers of a single parent tree and have very few roots of their own. Others have a long taproot, making it difficult to transplant without damage. If you attempt to transplant, do so in the spring just as the buds begin to open. Prune to bring the shoot into balance with the existing root system.

Most pawpaw trees do not self-pollinate. It is usually necessary to plant at least two trees if you want fruit. The trees should be from different groves or areas if grown from seeds or transplanted. Two different varieties are required if you use grafted trees.

Starting from seed, a pawpaw tree will normally begin flowering and fruiting in four to eight years. A grafted tree can begin flowering as early as two to three years after planting. Pawpaws do best in deep, fertile soil. It should be moist, but well drained and slightly acidic. Seedlings and grafted trees require adequate watering, fertilizing and weeding. Seedlings also require protection from full sunlight for the first few years.

As with many plants, the pawpaw tree has also been the subject of considerable research to discover uses for the numerous compounds it produces for its own defense against insects, microbes and other invasive organisms. Jerry McLaughlin, who retired from Purdue University in 1999, began studying compounds found in the bark of the pawpaw tree in 1976. His initial studies identified a number of compounds capable of controlling insects and pests, fighting tumors, and, most recently, eliminating head lice.

The pawpaw is easily overlooked among our larger or showier trees, but, like many of our native plants, its rich history and potential benefits remind us that the pawpaw still has a special place in Missouri's forests.

Pawpaw Chiffon Pie

  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 t salt
  • 2/3 cup milk
  • 3 eggs, separated
  • 1 cup pawpaw pulp
  • 1 pkg Knox gelatin

Mix brown sugar, salt, and gelatin in a pan. Add milk and egg yolks. Cook this mixture until it comes to a boil, then stir in pawpaw pulp and refrigerate until it is chilled, around 20 to 30 minutes.

Beat egg whites, gradually adding 1/4 cup of sugar; mix until stiff peaks are made. Fold egg whites into the pawpaw blend and serve as a pie or pudding.

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