PawPaw: A Forgotten Fruit

Blog Category
Discover Nature Notes
Published Display Date
Mar 16, 2015

There is a Midwest fruit as sweet as bananas and as fragrant as papayas: the pawpaw.

Anyone who has whiffed the heady fragrance of pawpaws will not be surprised to learn that the family includes several tropical fruit trees. The Midwestern offshoot of the family has large, irregular oval leaves that would look right at home in a rainforest. Its distinctive reddish- to purplish-brown flowers blossom about the same time that morel mushrooms sprout in April or May.

The pawpaw tree seldom grows taller than 20 to 30 feet. It is usually found in the groves beneath larger trees; in rich, moist soil; on steep slopes; and in creek and river bottoms.

The fruits can be six inches long and nearly three inches in diameter. They are thin-skinned and have an abundance of large seeds. But the soft, fragrant yellow meat more than justifies the time spent spitting out seeds. When fully ripe, pawpaw meat can be scooped out of the skin with a spoon.

If you want pawpaws, it pays to be on time. Raccoons, opossums, squirrels, coyotes, foxes and bears have an affection for this natural dessert. Some pawpaw pickers suggest getting ahead of the game. Instead of waiting until the fruits ripen and fall to the ground, pick them while they are still slightly green. Then put them in paper bags to ripen.

Dear Sweet PawPaws 

  • Pawpaws are a sweet fruit eaten raw or baked. The wood has no commercial use, but the inner bark was woven into a fiber cloth by Native Americans, and pioneers used it for stringing fish.
  • Pawpaw extract is being studied as a possible cancer-fighting drug. There are many historical medicinal uses.
  • The fruit is eaten by numerous bird species and by squirrels, opossums, and raccoons. Sometimes these creatures find the pawpaws before human pawpaw hunters do, which is one reason many people are planting their own pawpaw trees!
  • Pawpaw is a member of a tropical family and has no close relatives in Missouri. In nature, associated with sweet gum, river birch, sycamore and roughleaf dogwood.

For more on the pawpaw, check out MDC’s Field Guide.

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