Pawpaw Trees

By Roger Klinger

Where, oh where is pretty little Susie?
Way down yonder in the paw-paw patch.
Come on, boys and girls, let’s go find her,
Come on, boys and girls, let’s go find her,
Way down yonder in the paw-paw patch.
Pickin’ up paw-paws, puttin’ ‘em in her pockets,
Way down yonder in the paw-paw patch.
—“The Pawpaw Patch,” an Appalachian folk song

How many of of us learned this traditional Appalachian folk song as kids and sang it around a campfire without knowing that pawpaws truly exist, let alone thrive, throughout our amazing Appalachian forest regions?

Back in the 70s, I had my first taste of pawpaw fruit, picked off the ground on the banks of the Potomac River near Great Falls National Park in Maryland, and it changed my life forever! My wild edible guru, best friend, and backpacking buddy turned me on to these amazing trees and fruits which grew by the hundreds along the river, with large, dark green tropical leaves and unusual rich burgundy hanging bell flowers adorning the leafless trees in spring.

We picked up the ripe, oblong, sweet-smelling fruits off the ground and peeled them, revealing their rich yellow, custardy flesh, and when we bit into one, it was like a dream or revelation. They were so rich and luscious, bursting with flavor from the tropics, that the only comparison I could make was that they tasted like a mix between a banana, mango, and vanilla pudding. The seeds were gorgeous large mahogany-colored jewels, and I was hooked for the rest of my life on pawpaws.

That September, we went down to the river a dozen times and we’d shake the 20- to 30-foot-tall narrow trees laden with fruit, and hundreds of unripe green pawpaws would rain down on us, some 3-4 inches long — and they hurt! Unripe, they were like rocks. I laughed and said we needed to get construction hardhats for protection! We gathered bushels of these amazing fruits in a few hours, brought them home and transferred them into paper bags. Several days later, the house was perfumed with the heady, sweet aroma of ripe pawpaws.

Pawpaws (Asiminia triloba) are members of the Custard Apple family and are native to the eastern deciduous forests of North America. Pawpaws produce the largest edible fruit in North America, and they are one of the last trees to leaf out in our region, which shows their tropical origins. One unique characteristic of pawpaws is that their flowers come out first; they are a deep burgundy hanging bell-like flower similar in color to wild ginger, a shade of red that is not common among our native wildflowers.

Pawpaws are not only delicious but highly nutritious; their vitamin and mineral composition exceeds that of peaches, apples and grapes, and their water content is similar to that of a banana. Pawpaw fruits contain many chemical compounds and are likely high in antioxidants. Pawpaw fruits are also rich in minerals such as magnesium, copper, zinc, iron, manganese, potassium and phosphorus. The fruit also contains abundant concentrations of Vitamin C, proteins and derivative amino acids.

The bark and seeds are high in acetogenins, chemical compounds that are poisonous to most insect feeders, but these compounds are also being researched for their anti-carcinogenic potential.

The fruit of the pawpaw can be eaten raw, made into ice cream or used as a pie filling. An Appalachian tradition is to make pawpaw custard, which is similar in consistency to banana pudding. Microbreweries are experimenting with pawpaw beer, and there are many references to a white wine made from pawpaws. My favorite method for eating them, however, is to simply peel them and enjoy their intense and unique tropical flavors. Mostly ripe pawpaw that are still somewhat firm can keep in the refrigerator for 1-2 weeks, but they are best used quickly as their flavors are volatile.

Pawpaws were used extensively by native peoples and the colonists of eastern North America. Lewis and Clark’s expedition feasted on pawpaws on their return trip in the fall of 1806, when they found themselves in Missouri with low food rations and little game to hunt. Many towns were named after these trees, including Pawpaw, West Virginia.

Many people are now cultivating these unique fruits. They can be a little tricky to get established but are well worth the effort. We plan on introducing a few along our creek bed where the shade is thick and the soil is moist and loaded with natural leaf mulch.

Doug Elliot, a friend and local treasure-trove of Appalachian history, music and folklore, showed me his beautiful handmade pawpaw whip, which he made from a single small sapling. The pawpaw’s fibrous nature also led to its use for fishnets , traps and cordage.

Pawpaws are a delight to eat and beautiful to see in the forest, and wildlife love their delicious fruits as much as humans do. This is a special tree well worth taking the time to get to know and enjoy.

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