The adage, “what’s old is new again,” could describe the pawpaw tree. The interest in eating foods grown locally, with a focus on healthier choices, has scientists researching how to bring pawpaws, North America’s largest native fruit, to neighborhood supermarkets. The fruit is naturally high in vitamin C and B-6, as well as an excellent source of magnesium, iron, copper, manganese, and potassium. It also has significant amounts of riboflavin, niacin, calcium, phosphorus, and zinc.
Pawpaws are the fruit of the pawpaw tree (Asminia triboa), and the tree is native to Ohio. Native Americans favored the pawpaw fruit, and North American settlers used the fruit to make jelly (and the tree’s inner bark to string fish). George Washington’s favorite dessert was chilled pawpaw. The pawpaw has regional nicknames, which include Hoosier banana, West Virginia banana, and custard apple. Not only is the fruit appealing for its delicious flavor (likened to a custardy blend of banana, mango, and pineapple), it has other important properties, leading to is resurgence. The leaves, bark, and twigs produce anti-cancer and insecticidal compounds called acetogenins.
The range of this unique tree is from western New York to northern Florida, and throughout much of the Midwest down to Texas. The tree has a semi-tropical appearance, with leaves that are four to 10 inches long and four to six inches wide. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Forestry’s website describes the leaves as hanging down like “dog ears.”
The tree averages about 25 feet in height and about 15 feet in width with a pyramidal shape. Through time, one tree can become a sprawling colony via its root system, which suckers several feet away from the parent tree.
Pawpaw trees prefer fertile, moist soils such as in the bottoms of ravines, steep hillsides, and creek banks. Many of Ohio’s bike trails follow streams and rivers, ideal sites for pawpaws, and where we have seen many a pawpaw thicket. The trees produce dark lavender to purple red flowers that have an unpleasant odor, which attracts various flies and beetles, their primary pollinators. Because the flowers require pollen from a genetically different colony to be properly fertilized, pawpaws should be planted in groups with at least two different varieties. Pawpaws are not susceptible to diseases that we manage in our more common fruit trees. While a fungus may grow on the skin of the fruit, this does not prevent it from being edible. Trees in the Asimina genus, which includes the pawpaw, are the exclusive larval host plants for the gorgeous zebra swallowtail butterfly. Yet another reason to like this woody plant!
Pawpaw aficionados are increasing in numbers and the demand for fresh and processed fruit is growing. If you are interested in creating your own pawpaw patch, check out the forestry.ohiodnr.gov/trees for details on planting requirements. If you would like to sample delectable pawpaw recipes, mark your calendar for the 2020 Pawpaw Festival, Sept. 11-13, located at Lake Snowden in Athens County. You can not only learn from pawpaw growers, but you can enjoy the pawpaw cookoff with treats such as eggrolls, wine, guacamole, salsa, and craft beers – all from the rich and luscious pawpaw fruit!
Visit the Delaware Soil and Water Conservation District’s website at co.delaware.oh.us and find us on Facebook and Instagram. Find our 2020 tree and shrub packet order form, which includes a pawpaw seedling packet, at co.delaware.oh.us.
Bonnie Dailey is deputy director of the Delaware Soil & Water Conservation District. For information, go to www.soilandwater.co.delaware.oh.us.