Native Spotlight: PawPaw

Early People

Pawpaw trees are often the dominant understory vegetation in native forests. Being the largest native fruit in America, Native people relied on pawpaws for a source of nutrition in their late summer diets. As European settlers migrated to America they soon discovered the tasty fruit and began using it as an ingredient in everything from liquor to bread. During the great depression the fruit was dubbed the "poor mans banana", being used as a substitute to other tropical fruits. The taste is often described as banana like, however if you have ever had one you will realize they are truly in a league of their own in the flavor department.


Pawpaw tree stems and leaves
Photo Credit: National Park Service

Wildlife

Long before any person inhabited America, pawpaw were a staple in many native animals diets. Generally, animals avoid the stems and leaves and go straight for the fruit. Deer, birds, possum, foxes, and other forest animals all rely on its fruit as a source of nutrition. As the fruit ripen and fall to the ground animals are quick to take advantage of the opportunity, often making fruit harvest a challenge for people.


Fruit

The fruit of a pawpaw are green in color and often blend in with the plant and other surrounding green vegetation. Shaped like a small potato, they were often confused with papaya in early explorations and plant surveys. Flavor is described as a smoothie of flavors, banana, mango, vanilla, and citrus. Fruit is traditionally eaten by cutting the fruit in half, picking the seeds out and scooping the meat out from the skin like a baked potato. Seeds can be saved and propagated to start your own pawpaw nursery or help replenish native forests.


Pawpaw fruit in the palm of a human hand
Source: National Park Service / Brolis

Identification

Identification can be easy, though finding pawpaw groves is increasingly difficult as they endure threats of deforestation and invasive species. Often found growing in clusters, pawpaw spread by seed and roots. Because pawpaw is self incompatible it cannot pollinate itself and thus relies on pollen from other nearby groves to pollinate itself. This is why sometimes groves of plants can be found not bearing fruit. Mature trees can grow as much as 100 ft. tall but on average they generally don't grow more than 30ft in height. Pawpaw prefer moist, well drained soil and are often found in floodplains or along tributary streams. Leaf's are considered simple, alternate with pinnate venation and are often the size of your hand.


Young fruit growing in a cluster of 5
Source: Yale University

Pawpaw bark with pore openings for plant exchange processes
Source: Yale University / Will Cook
Fruit cut in half with seeds exposed
Source: Yale University
















Map showing the native range and distribution of pawpaws in the midwest
Source: Purdue University. Distribution and native range of Pawpaw in the United States

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