Pawpaws: Missouri’s State Fruit

By Jan Wiese-Fales | October 1, 2022
From Missouri Conservationist: October 2022
PAWPAWS Missouri’s State Fruit

A fourth-grade civics lesson at St. Louis-based New City School in 2019 resulted in the pawpaw (Asimina triloba) earning designation as Missouri’s official fruit tree.

Missourians who might easily recognize bluebirds, dogwoods, black walnuts, and honeybees — the official state bird, tree, nut, and insect — may not be able to pick the pawpaw tree out of an arboreal line-up, let alone recognize its fruit. But pawpaw trees are plentiful in their natural habitat of rich bottomland soils along streams, on moist slopes, in ravines, and at the base of wooded bluffs, environments that occur in great swaths of Missouri’s landscape.

Pawpaws are the only descendent of the mostly tropical Annonaceae, or custard apple, family that have evolved to thrive in temperate North America. The tree’s 6- to 12-inch long, 3- to 5-inch wide, dangling, lance-shaped leaves are among the last to emerge in the spring forest, an adaptation that has almost certainly contributed to its successful integration into USDA hardiness zones 5 to 9. In autumn, the tree’s exotic leaves are golden yellow in the forest landscape.

“Pawpaw trees are easy to identify. They look like a tropical plant,” said MDC Community Forester Ann Koenig. “Smelling a crushed leaf is a dead giveaway. It smells more like green pepper than green peppers do.

“I absolutely love the flowers in the spring. There’s nothing else that looks like them in bloom.”

Pawpaw blooms emerge before leaves make an appearance in late April and early May. At first small and green, blooms mature into bell-shaped flowers with six recurved petals in a rich burgundy color. These sturdy blossoms emit a fetid odor that attracts the carrion beetles and flies that pollinate them. Not the most efficient of pollinators, a novel and interesting solution used by commercial growers to increase fruit set is to hang a dead animal carcass — or roadkill — from the tree’s branches to lure them in greater numbers.

Koenig suggested that spring bloom surveillance forays into the woods could make fall pawpaw foraging trips more successful.

Pollinated blooms produce pale green fruits that grow singly or in small clusters. Shaped somewhat like a kidney bean, they mature to the size of potatoes, making them the largest native American fruit species.

Ripening in September and October, fruits may or may not change color. Some variants turn a lighter green and even display a yellowing. Fully ripe fruits soften and give off a distinctive fruity aroma, eventually falling from the tree. A gentle squeeze that leaves a slight indent indicates ripeness but use caution. Fruits bruise easily. And unless very close to maturity, pawpaws will not further ripen once picked. Ripe fruits often exhibit some browning and there are those who are most fond of them the darker they get.

Within its smooth green skin, pawpaw’s creamy white to pale yellow or orange flesh surrounds several large brown seeds. Flavor varies among varieties, and some native pawpaws should be tossed instead of tasted. But when they are good, they are very good with a complex flavor most often likened to some combination of banana, mango, and pineapple. With only a two-day shelf-life, fruits will keep for up two or three weeks if refrigerated. Pulp can be frozen for later use.

Pawpaw foragers must be vigilant to beat opossums, raccoons, foxes, squirrels, and black bears to the fat fruits that certainly must be a favored delicacy in woodland diets. Pawpaw’s most welcome “pest” is the zebra swallowtail butterfly that lays its eggs on the undersides of the trees young leaves. Pawpaws are the exclusive larval host for the striking black-and-white butterflies.

Reaching mature heights of 15 feet, and occasionally growing up to 30 feet, pawpaws tend to grow in colonies, spreading by underground roots. Because they are not self-fertile, pollen from a tree from outside the colony is necessary to produce fruit, which further explains why entire groves of trees are sometimes devoid of pawpaws.

“I’ve seen thousands of pawpaw trees but only a few fruits,” Koenig said.

Ancient History, Names, and Brushes with Fame

In Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit, author Andrew Moore writes that fossil records indicate pawpaw’s ancestors were growing in North America in the Eocine, 56 million years ago. The plants’ irresistible sweet, fleshy fruits resulted in prehistoric megafauna enthusiastically dining on them and efficiently dispersing the seeds. A couple of ice sheets and hundreds of thousands of years later, Asimina triloba remained the only member of a 2,000 species family to have adapted to frozen winters. Pawpaws are indigenous to 26 states in the eastern and midwestern United States.

The earliest known Native American archeological sites show that humans seasonally dined on pawpaws in large quantities. Their fondness for the fruits was responsible for the trees’ broader dispersal as they moved and migrated “carrying seeds in satchels rather than their stomachs,” observed Moore. He noted that a modern map with large numbers of pawpaw place names is a testament to the tree’s popularity and spread.

Early American settlers most certainly encountered and enjoyed pawpaws, but the first solid written evidence of the edible fruits appeared in 1612 when Jamestown colonist William Strachey wrote about “assessemin,” from the Powhatan word assimin, in reference to pawpaws, which he called wheat plums.

Englishman John Lawson referred to the fruit as a papau in A New Voyage to Carolina in 1709. Many names were attributed to the widespread fruit, often misidentified as a type of papaya. Linnaeus assigned pawpaws with their current recognized classification in 1753.

Over the years any number of colorful regional names have been coined to identify pawpaws including Missouri banana, Hoosier banana, hillbilly mango, and banago, among many others.

Historical records indicate that Daniel Boone enjoyed pawpaws, both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson ate, grew, and shared them, and in 1806, William Clark journaled about their critical role in the Lewis and Clark expedition: “Our party out of provisions. Subsisting on poppaws.”

Pawpaw fruits also were welcome and nutritional repast in the meager diets of Civil War soldiers and enslaved persons.

Dubious Claim to Fame

Just as you’ve more than likely heard the old pawpaw patch song, a mention of the “Hatfields and McCoys” may bring an epic American feud to mind. An 1882 election day argument in Kentucky resulted in some innocently by-standing pawpaw trees playing a role in a deadly incident of this renowned feud.

A historical marker near Buskirk, Kentucky, recalls the fatal “Pawpaw Tree Incident.” It reads: “This episode is result of August 1882 election-day fight. Tolbert, a son of Randolph McCoy, exchanged heated words with Ellison Hatfield, which started a fight. Tolbert, Pharmer and Randolph McCoy Jr. stabbed Ellison to death. Later the three brothers were captured by Hatfield clan, tied to pawpaw trees, and shot in retaliation.”


Healthy and Versatile

Low in fat and calories, a 3.5 ounce serving of pawpaw provides 22 percent of the daily value (DV) of vitamin C, 38 percent DV of iron, 27 percent DV of magnesium, and decent amounts of many other essential minerals. If given a choice between a pawpaw, a banana, a peach, or a bunch of grapes, pick the pawpaw for the most overall nutrients.

Many people believe when it comes to pawpaws, fresh is best, but pawpaw flesh is culinarily versatile. Because of its custardy texture and sweetness, it most often is used in custard-based recipes such as ice cream, pudding, and cream and chiffon pies. It also can be used to delicious effect in breads, cookies, muffins, and pancakes. Pawpaws have recently been used as a seasonal flavoring for beer and wine.

Extracting pulp from the seedy fruits can seem challenging. It’s best to cut the fruits in half, remove the seeds and scoop the flesh out. Or press it through a food mill or a screen to separate the skin from the pulp.

Moore noted Native Americans often dried the fruit for later use in soups and stews, corn cakes, and other breads. Present day cautionary tales warn of adverse reactions to consumption of dried pawpaws, or fruit leather. There is no scientific consensus for why this occurs. Moore speculated Native American preparation techniques may have neutralized compounds responsible for illness.

Pawpaws prompt an allergic reaction in some people. This reaction is fairly rapid, so nibble before you gobble to make sure you are not included in this unfortunate group.

In addition to eating and cooking with pawpaws, Native Americans twisted the fibrous inner bark from the pawpaw’s trunk to make ropes, fishing nets, baskets, mats, and cloth. Powder from ground seeds was used to control head lice, effective because the tree produces compounds that deter insects and bacterial pests. They also serve to make zebra swallowtail larvae unpalatable to birds and other predators.

Current research supports pawpaw’s natural insecticidal properties and investigation continues for its potential use as such.

pawpaws for the cure

According to the National Library of Medicine, promising new anti-tumor agents known as Annonaceous acetogenins have been discovered in pawpaws and other plants in Annonaceae family. These compounds have been shown to inhibit cell processes associated with various cancers. Published studies have shown the acetogenins effectiveness as mechanisms against cancer in leukemia, pancreatic, and breast cancer models in laboratory trials with mice and rats. More research will be needed before it will become a viable treatment.


Landscape Worthy

Pawpaw trees can be an appealing choice for home landscapes. Because they are not self-fertile, planting two or three trees of different varieties will increase the chances of fruit production.

“A lot of people plant magnolias but they could just as easily plant pawpaws for a similar aesthetic,” said Hannah Hemmelgarn, assistant program director at MU’s Center for Agroforestry, home to pawpaw cultivar trials and demonstration orchards. “More and more people are growing them.

“Pawpaws in the wild might be tall and scraggly and not producing much fruit. Trees have a more stout form if planted in the sun and tend to produce more and larger fruits.”

Trees that grow more than a couple of years in the shade, tend to sucker into a “pawpaw patch,” just as it did “way down yonder” in the well-known folk song.

Pawpaws can be grown from seed, but it can take up to eight years for a tree planted from seed to produce fruit, and there is no guarantee the resulting pawpaw sapling and its fruits will come back true to the parent stock.

Native variety pawpaw seedlings are available from George O. White State Forest Nursery and may be ordered directly from MDC’s website from September through mid-April. Additionally, grafted plants and several excellent cultivars developed as part of university research programs are available commercially.

Hemmelgarn urges homeowners planting pawpaws to plant more than one cultivar or native variety.

“Cultivars of pawpaw are also known as nativars,” she said. “These selections yield more abundant and reliably flavorful, and larger fruits, though a native pawpaw is always going to be a winner for diversification and wildlife purposes.”

Check Before You Collect

If you’d prefer to forage for pawpaws, first educate yourself about possible local harvest regulations that may prohibit

picking fruit. MDC regulations allow the collection of nuts, berries, and fruits — such as pawpaws — edible wild greens, and mushrooms for personal consumption from most MDC areas, except nature centers, conservation headquarters, Rockwood Reservation, and natural areas.

And as with any foraging, its best to gather only what you plan to use.

show off your pawpaw!

The Missouri Department of Natural Resource’s Bennett Spring State park held its Fourth Annual Picking Up Pawpaws Contest Sept. 14-24. Participants presented their entries to staff at the park’s nature center for weigh-in during the designated 10-day contest window. Participants were photographed displaying their entries at weigh-in.

Out of 100 adult entries and 50 youth entries submitted in 2021, Dale Rodden’s 10.2 oz. Dallas County-collected pawpaw took top honors. David Garmon and his Texas County-collected 9.8 oz. pawpaw placed second. As the 2021 contest winner, Rodden received wild edible field guides, a 2022 Farmer’s Almanac, and a custom drawn bookmark of pawpaws from the state park’s volunteer artist, Deanna Stuckey. And a year’s worth of bragging rights.


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