Pawpaw Tree
Riverdave's Journal
This essay appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on 4/2/97

Around the first of April a very unusual flower blooms in the midst of our riverine forest floodplains that few have noticed. It belongs to the almost legendary pawpaw tree. I say legendary, because as a child I only knew of its existence through the children's song "Pickin' up pawpaws, put 'em in your pockets, way down yonder in tha pawpaw patch.'' What this fruit looked like, or why it was even gathered, I had no idea. I even wondered if the song had some disturbingly suggestive meaning that older friends knew about, but that I in my innocence, hadn't figured out yet!

But the pawpaw tree has become a new friend of mine in the past eight years as I have explored our local Piedmont rivers and contemplated their meaning to me. Its favorite habitat is the shady forest understory in rich, moist soils of river margins. It most frequently occurs in the Piedmont and less commonly in the mountains and coastal plain of North Carolina. It reaches its most luxuriant form along the Mississippi River and its tributaries where a single "patch'' of pawpaw may extend for dozens of acres.

Native Americans gathered both wild and cultivated pawpaw, selecting them for the yellowest, creamy fruit. But because the pawpaw did not develop a reputation for having medicinal properties, its fascination among Europeans coming to the New World was limited. The Spanish explorer DeSoto first mentions it in his chronicles in 1541 as he moved up the Mississippi Valley. The sweet fruit was of significant consequence to conquistadors who were always on the edge of starvation.

DeSoto may be responsible for the name pawpaw, the fruit looking very similar to the papaya that he and his troops had just experienced in tropical America. But the Arawak Indian word papaya denotes a fruit that is in no way related to what became know as the North American pawpaw and which was later given the Latin name of Asimina triloba.

The pawpaw is the northernmost member of a family of mostly tropical plants known as Annonaceae, with more than 2,000 species known throughout the world. Other related fruits from this family are quite popular in tropical America: the custard apple, the sugar apple and the soursop. In florida, the related and slightly aromatic pond apple replaces the pawpaw in the floodplain habitat.

The pawpaw tree grows to a maximum height of thirty-five feet and may be as much as a foot in diameter. It is stoloniferous, forming colonies branching underground that produce plants identical to the parent. The trunk is usually slender and opens up into a dense, rounded top.

Pale green flowers appear around the first of April and soon turn a unique maroon, sometimes before its leaves appear or concurrent with them. The two inch bisexual flower has two sets of three pedals, inspiring its Latin name triloba.

The aromatic pawpaw is the largest native fruit in North America and everything about it is odd and unforgettable. It comes in a pear-shaped, oblong form, three to five inches long as a single fruit or in clusters. The skin is light green, later turning yellow. The flesh can be white to yellow in color, the yellower the tastier. Hidden in the sweet pulp are several shiny, dark-brown, flattened seeds. They contain an alkaloid that is said to have a stupefying effect on the brains of animals. Could this be why the opossum never makes it across the road?

The wild fruit is very perishable and therefore hard to transport to market, so it is usually sold only locally. It is collected best when it has already fallen to the ground and allowed to ripen beyond the yellow stage to a mottled black. It should not be vigorously shaken out of a tree while still green as often the fruit does not ripen well when picked too early.  Occasionally a picker may develop dermatitis from handling the fruit. But the pulp is rich, nutritious and very filling. It is high in unsaturated fats, vitamins A and C, proteins, carbohydrates, potassium, phosphorus, sulfur and very high in amino acids.

Besides the pawpaw's reputation as a delicious edible fruit, I did find reference to its use in colonial times in making an alcoholic beverage. The fibrous bark of this river tree was known to make an excellent fish stringer and Native Americans wove a cloth from the bark.

After DeSoto, history ignored the pawpaw for nearly two centuries until the English artist and naturalist, Mark Catesby, described it in his work entitled The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands.  I found a copy of this magnificent piece of art and writing in the Durham Public Library that local river enthusiast George Pyne had donated in memory of his wife Mary after her recent passing.

Catesby's colleague, a Mr. Collinson, wrote in 1738 to the explorer John Bartram, who was in the south at the time on an expedition, and requested a sample of the pawpaw fruit for Catesby. He said that Catesby would "thank thee very kindly for the fruit; and come they either dry, or in spirits, they will lose their colour; so pray describe it as well as thee can, that he may be qualified to paint it.'' Collinson followed this with a report to Bartram in 1739, that the "jar with the pawpaws came safe, and my friend Catesby thanks thee very much.'' Mark Catesby described the fleshy fragrant fruit as "light yellow, smooth, resembling a ram's scrotum.''

If the description by this English gentleman hasn't unsettled your stomach yet, try just one more report. I have learned that the pawpaw is finally being grown commercially in California and that a hardier variety may be developed that could make the pawpaw the number one fruit found in the American supermarket. Here is how it works.

Only recently have botanists realized that the pawpaw tree was pollinated primarily by various species of carrion flies. If these insects are not around, the plant will not produce fruit. To solve this problem, commercial growers have gone to slaughter houses and brought the entrails of animals and strung them over the tops of their pawpaw trees. The stench draws the carrion flies who then pollinate the flowers. Fruit is subsequently borne in copious qualities.

The North American pawpaw has great commercial potential if the problem of the pollination of its flowers and the perishable nature of the fruit can be worked out. In the meantime, if you are lucky enough to come across the fruit in the Triangle area in the early fall, here is a recipe that I chose from the Naturalist's Guide to Cooking With Wild Plants, by Connie and Arnold Crochmal.

Pawpaw Ice Cream

   2 cups sliced pawpaw
   2/3 cup sweetened condensed milk
   1 tablespoon lemon juice
   1 cup heavy cream

Blend the pawpaw in a blender until smooth. Add the condensed milk and lemon juice, and blend until smooth. Whip the cream until stiff, and fold into the blended mixture. Pour into a freezer tray, and freeze until firm, about three hours. 4 servings.

If you live next to a shady creek or flood plain, you may want to consider starting your own pawpaw patch.  But if you find that the carrion flies are not around in suitable numbers, you may want to talk the matter over with your neighbors before taking more serious action.

Photo by Riverdave:  pawpaw fruit collected by Riverdave along the banks of the Haw River