The Pawpaw is a curious native tree that folks rarely pay attention to until it produces fruit. Also called “Winter Banana” and “Custard Apple”, the fruit looks like it should to be growing in a tropical rain forest rather than the Appalachians. It is in fact a close relative of several tropical trees in South America. Even the name “Pawpaw” is tropical in origin, being a corruption of the papaya tree to which it is not related.
Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is usually found as a small tree or dense thicket of shrubs along streams and bottomland areas where the soil is deep and rich. The bark of the trunk is thin, gray to brown in color, and often marked with ash-colored blotches. The leaves are 10 to 12 inches long, paddle shaped, and give off a green-pepper smell when bruised. The tree produces a striking wine colored flower with 3 petals in March, and bright yellow autumn leaves.
The fruit resembles a short, fat banana 3-5 inches long. They are green at first, then gradually turns nearly black when good and ripe in late September or early October. Pawpaw connoisseurs recommend one or two frosts on them before eating. They don’t look very appetizing on the outside, but when broken open the yellow or orange flesh inside is soft, custardy, and quite tasty. The orange colored ones are supposed to be the best tasting. Be aware of possible food allergies if trying pawpaw for the first time. As a food source, Pawpaw is popular among several wildlife species, including the opossum, raccoon, turkey, and gray squirrel.
Pawpaw fruit made history on a couple of occasions. It is mentioned in the chronicles of DeSoto’s expedition to the Mississippi valley in 1541, where an edible fruit of such size would be an important find for a group of half-starved conquistadores. It is also recorded that members of the Lewis and Clark expedition were saved from a shortage of food by an abundance of pawpaws found on their return journey. The fruit’s sweet taste was certainly a favorite to early pioneers, as the children’s song “picking up pawpaws” can attest.
The wood of Pawpaw is soft, weak, light in weight, and of no commercial importance. Early pioneers used to grind the seed, which is poisonous, into a powder to put on the heads of children who had lice. The leaves were also thought to have insecticidal properties.