For many, the pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba) isn’t a familial tree. I can say that for most of my life up until the more recent years, I wasn’t familiar with them either. Even though I and many other Americans aren’t familiar with this tree, it has its own purpose and place within the native landscape and ecology of a large portion of North America. Not only does it play an important role in nature, but there is evidence that it played an important role as a food source for many people across the land for many years.
It saddens me to know that I went over 20 years of my life without knowing what a pawpaw tree was. The fruit from the tree is a precious prize to many foragers and permaculturist that are able to grow them in their growing climate. I have now made it my goal to taste the beloved pawpaw for the past few years, but always came up short as either the trees I had found were too young to bear fruit or I was too early and the fruit isn’t ripe. Usually it is the latter and the fruit is all gone by the time I arrive as I waited too late. This year however I was successful at finding the illusive fruit!
I know what you’re thinking. “This fruit can’t be that good if I’ve never heard of it before”, and you may be right to think that, but I strongly urge you to reconsider as I will expand on this in a paragraph below. People describe this fruit as being a mix between a mango and a banana with a custard-like texture. The fruit from these trees are known to produce the largest native fruit in North America.
My struggle in finding and enjoying this unknown, but highly protected fruit has motivated me to buy 10 cold stratified seeds from a seller on Etsy and grow them myself, despite the fact that they won’t fruit for probably 3-10 years, nor is it a guarantee that their fruit will be what they are supposed to live up to be due to genetic recombination. You may call me crazy for taking such a risk, but I think it is 100% worth it. I will continue to give you some information about this species of tree in regards to its history, identification, natural habitat, why you can’t find them in the store, nutritional value, and medicinal properties/info.
1. Historical Context
The history of the tree and its fruit in American history is quite interesting. It is assumed that the fruit is the large size it is today (in regards to other wild fruits) as to attract large mammals to eat them as to disperse their offspring. These animals included the giant sloths, wooly mammoth, and others. Jessica Brode wrote a piece on the matter for the Smithsonian Gardens website titled, Way Down Yonder in the Paw-Paw Patch, which states, “Native people in the Mississippi Valley and elsewhere planted and cultivated pawpaws in ways that are still visible in the landscape today. In the mid-sixteenth century, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto likely observed Mississippi Valley Native Americans growing and eating pawpaws; news of this exotic fruit subsequently spread to Europe…
According to James A. Little in his 1905 pamphlet, A Treatise on the Pawpaw, pawpaw fruit helped sustain Native Americans and early American settlers in times of harvest failure. Little wrote that pawpaw trees required minimal maintenance in order to survive in the wild, unlike apple, pear, or peach trees. While this observation ignores various tribes’ farming practices which spread and maintained the trees—and likely selected for sweeter or more palatable cultivars—the native pawpaw did thrive much more easily than non-native fruit trees. Thanks to its resilience, Native Americans and early pioneers enjoyed pawpaw fruit as a dependable source of nourishment. Pawpaws kept members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition from starving during their travels west in 1804-1806, were a favorite fruit of folk hero Daniel Boone, and fed escaping African American slaves during their dangerous journeys.”
Pawpaw fruit has existed for an extensive amount of time here in North America. It has played a role in feeding the megafauna and humans which have inhabited its territory for thousands of years to say the least. It is amazing that we get to connect with this relatively untouched, wild fruit.
2. How to Identify Pawpaw Trees
You can identify these wild fruit by their long, teardrop shaped leaves. The edges of the leaves are smooth and have no serrations. Small plants seem to have long leaves when compared to overall stature and the bark is relatively smooth when younger, similar to that of an aspen tree in appearance. Typically, the base/trunk of the tree doesn’t branch or fork until higher on the tree.
3. Where You Can Find Pawpaw Trees
You can find pawpaw trees in their native range within North America. The trees can be found in the central Midwest and in the eastern portion of the United States, though the trees are able to grow slightly outside their native range and can live in a large portion of the East central United States. The trees tolerate growing zones 5-8, making them a pretty cold hardy tree.
From my observations, you will typically find these trees naturally as an understory tree near some type of water access. This may be a creek, lake, or river. They have a large taproot as to gain access to this water as this is what they prefer. They prefer partial sun-shade; though can do okay in direct sun with some TLC during hot summer afternoons.
People who plant these trees in their yard typically choose spots that harbor a bit of shade as to mimic its natural environment, or they use shade cloth and stakes to help guide the trees to grow straighter vertically and not get too burned from the hot summer sun while the tree is young.
4. Why You Don’t See Pawpaw Fruit in The Store
You may be asking yourself why you don’t see pawpaw fruit in stores despite many people choosing to grow them or forage for them. The answer is a combination of responses. One being that the species is as a whole not domesticated like that of the common fruits we eat today such as apples, plums, peaches, pears, etc. This opens up room for undesirable traits to be expressed randomly in new generations of fruit/offspring which is not ideal for people trying to make a living selling fruit, though new cultivars and varieties are being created and researched.
Another reason why you don’t see these in the stores is because they don’t ripen like other fruit. If picked too early they won’t ripen at all and if picked too late they may spoil in shipping. This reason is one of the main reasons why you don’t tend to see this fruit offered in supermarkets and grocery stores.
5. Nutritional Value
Despite the lack of large scale availability, the fruit are considered to be highly nutritious. Kentucky State University has a page on their website dedicated to highlighting the fruits nutrition. Based on what I can gather, pawpaws are high in vitamin C, magnesium, copper, iron, and manganese. They also contain amino acids and potassium as well as other important minerals, though these are comparable to other fruits.
6. Medicinal Properties
There is some research that indicates that the fruit and bark of the pawpaw tree holds a chemical called acetogenin. Acetogenin is said to impact the energy production of the cell via adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is how energy is transferred and stored at the cellular level. There is some evidence which shows that this could help reduce or slow the development of drug resistant tumors or kill them all together, thus reducing or slowing down cancer in the body, though there needs to be far more research to fully back up this statement.
Despite the potential for cancer research, there is some debate in regards to the amount of pawpaws one can/should consume safely as there is some association to neuron damage related to a chemical found in the fruit called annonacin. Some researchers argue that heavy and frequent consumption of the fruit could lead to a type of Parkinson’s disease, though more research is needed to back up this claim.
I personally think that the fruit is fine in moderation given the historical significance of the food source to various tribes within North America, though do be aware of the risk(s) if you choose to eat the fruit in the future.
The pawpaw tree is an American gem that is making its way out from the shady understory back to the spotlight once again. The tree and fruit has played an important role in feeding certain insects and herbivores throughout time, and it was/is a beloved food source and natural resource for humans. I cherish the history and taste of the plant and have done my best to give you as much information as I could in a condensed format.
The trees are relatively easy to identify and find if looking in the correct areas/ranges, though it may take some time as the trees do look similar to shagbark hickory trees (to me at least). The overall nature of the fruit and general wildness is why you probably haven’t heard of the fruit or seen it around stores, though the fruit does hold some great nutrition and potentially lifesaving medical compounds if you can ignore the potential neuron toxin…
Despite all the information and taboo, I hope you try the fruit at least once in your life and continue to appreciate it either seasonally as a food source or from a distance now that you know some of the history of the tree/species. Do understand the potential risks associated with the current research or potential for a food allergy. Consider also harvesting ethically if you do wish to forage for them as other people and animals would like to enjoy the fruit as well.
Thank you for reading, I hope you learned something new and interesting!
Brode, Jessica. “Way down Yonder in the Paw-Paw Patch.” Smithsonian Gardens, 9 Jan. 2023, gardens.si.edu/learn/blog/way-down-yonder-in-the-paw-paw-patch/.