Pawpaw is a large shrub to small tree with a slender trunk and broad crown; grows in colonies.
Leaves are alternate, simple, 6–12 inches long, 3–5 inches wide, broadest above the middle; margin lacking teeth; upper surface green; lower surface pale; emitting an odor when bruised.
Bark is light ash to dark brown, thin, smooth, later becoming warty with blotches.
Twigs are slender, olive-brown, often blotched, smooth, becoming rougher when older, often with a warty surface. Emits a disagreeable odor when crushed; terminal bud velvet brown, lacking scales; flower bud rounded, overwinters on previous year’s twig.
Flowers March–May; perfect (with male and female parts in same flower), dark reddish purple, solitary, drooping, about 1 inch across, appearing before the leaves and with an odor of fermenting purple grapes.
Fruits September–October. Banana-shaped, cylindrical, 3–5 inches long, green at first and yellow when ripe; pulp sweet, edible, with custardy texture.
Habitat and Conservation
In 2019, after lobbying and testifying by a group of St. Louis students, the pawpaw was named Missouri's official state fruit tree.
Pawpaw is increasingly popular as a native landscaping and fruit tree. If you want fruit, plant two unrelated trees so they can cross-pollinate.
The sweet fruit is eaten raw or baked. There are many recipes for it. It has even been used for flavoring beer!
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.
There's a Paw Paw village and a Paw Paw Creek in Sullivan County, in northern Missouri.
If you love tropical fruits, you might be familiar with some other species that are in the same family: the cherimoya (or custard apple), and the soursop (or guanábana). All have a sweet banana/pineapple flavor, a creamy texture, and the same basic green-skinned, multi-seeded fruit structure.
The fruit is relished by numerous bird species and by squirrels, opossums, and raccoons. Often these creatures find the pawpaws before human pawpaw hunters do, which is one reason many people are planting their own pawpaw trees!
The lovely black-and-white striped zebra swallowtail butterfly requires pawpaw leaves as its larval food plant, so if you want to see zebra swallowtails, go where the pawpaw trees live. Zebra swallowtails cannot live on any other plant: pawpaw foliage is where they develop as caterpillars, and that's where the females must lay eggs.
The pawpaw sphinx moth (Dolba hyloeus) is another attractive insect whose caterpillars eat pawpaw leaves. Look for it in the bottomland forests where pawpaw grows.
Native trees play an important and irreplaceable role in our Missouri ecosystems, feeding insects and larger animals that are adapted to eating them. When you plant native trees and other plants, you are strengthening the fabric of nature and helping to offset habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation.