The pawpaw (Asimina triloba), also known as the custard apple, Quaker delight, hillbilly mango, and Appalachian banana, is a relative of cherimoya, guanábana, and sweetsop. The fruit has a dense, custard-like texture and the flavor is often described as a cross between mango and banana. It’s also among the easiest fruit trees to grow. Pawpaw is not usually bothered by pests so chemical spraying is not necessary.

Pawpaws and other Asimina species endemic to the Southeast are the sole host plants for the Zebra Swallowtail, the state butterfly of Tennessee. The fruit is eaten by opossums, raccoons, foxes, squirrels and many other animals, but the leaves are avoided by both mammals and insects. Even deer won't browse a pawpaw tree. I can attest to that. They never bother the pawpaws in my back yard, but they love the hedge and the jewelweed next to them.

Native Americans ate the fruit for thousands of years and used the fibrous inner bark for cordage and textiles. The Shawnee of the Ohio River Valley celebrated the Pawpaw Moon during the entire month of September when pawpaws are ripe in much of the country. Numerous Native American place names translate to "The Pawpaw Eaters" and "Pawpaw Village". It was an important tree for European colonists and pioneers who settled this country. Throughout Appalachia and the Midwest, dozens of towns are named after it as are creeks, streams, streets and avenues.

The pawpaw is a beautiful tree with some of the largest leaves in the Eastern Deciduous Forest. They're often up to a foot long and have a tropical appearance. In the woods, pawpaws are understory trees that thrive in the shade of the forest canopy. They are tall, thin and sparsely branched. Pawpaws form dense clonal patches via root suckers. If you want to grow a thicket, keep the suckers. The growth habit is noted in the American folk song, Way Down Yonder in the Pawpaw Patch. "The song seems to have originated in Kentucky, but the name of the author is lost to time."1

Pawpaws are commercially grown in the Pacific Northwest, New England, and the Upper Midwest. In the wild, they're found growing in rich, alluvial soil along rivers, creeks, and streams. In the garden, pawpaws prefer slightly acidic soil but easily accept many types. Ideal sites are moist and well-drained. Pawpaw trees produce most heavily in full sun. If you only have a shady area, they can still produce fruit. If allowed to sucker, pawpaws can be formed into a fruiting hedge. Plant trees 5-10 feet apart to ensure pollination.

Pawpaw is easily grown from seed. Don't let the seed dry out or it will die. Seeds must experience a period of cold stratification at or below 41°F for 70-100 days. This process can be recreated in your refrigerator. Thoroughly clean the seeds and put them in ziplock bags containing a moist medium like sphagnum or peat moss. Store in the refrigerator but do not freeze.

Pawpaws are slow to germinate and often don't sprout for up to three months. They develop a deep taproot that contains delicate, fibrous roots. Digging mature plants will often kill them. The majority of pawpaws are sold as young seedlings or grafted varieties. The best time to plant is spring. For the first two years, pawpaw seedlings are very sensitive to dry soil and sunlight. Shading them may be necessary.

Pawpaws bloom mid-spring. The maroon flower color attracts carrion flies and beetles. This trait caused some to believe that pawpaw flowers smell like rotting meat or carrion. Pawpaw flowers actually have a yeasty smell. However, the persistent carrion connection has resulted in some strange gardening practices including hanging roadkill in the trees to attract pollinators.

Since pawpaws are not self-fertile, each tree requires a genetically distinct partner for cross-pollination. Each seedling produced will be unique and can provide other plants with cross-pollination. When growing cultivars, be sure to select more than one variety. If grown from seed, pawpaws begin to flower and fruit in six to eight years or when the tree reaches approximately six feet tall. If the previous year’s fruit set was poor, hand-pollinating is an option.

A pawpaw is ripe when a light squeeze produces a slight give. If picked too early, an unripe pawpaw will darken and never become soft and sweet. The traditional method for harvesting pawpaws is gently shaking the tree. Ripe fruit will fall off; unripe fruit remains attached.

A strong, sweet fragrance means the fruit is ready. If a pawpaw isn't quite ripe, let it continue to ripen on your counter for a day or so. When the fruit’s aroma is noticeable, it’s ready to eat. If you harvested your pawpaws on the ground in the wild, they could be near fermentation. Pawpaws picked directly from the tree retain a high flavor quality when stored at room temperature for up to five days. They can be refrigerated for several weeks. Pawpaw pulp freezes well and can be stored for a year or more.

Pawpaws vary in size, flavor, and color and have a sweet, tangy flavor with the mellowness of banana and the slight tang of a kiwi. Some are mild; others taste like coconut or caramel. The flesh ranges from bright orange and yellow to pale white. The cultivars that exist today are primarily wild varieties that have been selected for large fruit, exceptional flavor, and fewer seeds. Only a few of today's varieties are old. Most have been selected over the past 70 years and propagated through grafting. Selections include 'Overleese', 'Sunflower' and 'Mango'.

Pawpaw Cookies with Black Walnuts2
¾ cup pureed pawpaw pulp
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ tsp baking powder
¼ cup butter
½ cup brown sugar
1 egg
½ cup black walnuts
Preheat the oven to 350o F and grease one large cookie sheet. Peel and seed fresh pawpaws and process in a food processor until fine. Sift together the flour and baking powder, and set aside. Cream the butter and sugar. Add the egg. Add the flour mixture and then add the pawpaw pulp. Chop half the nuts (reserve 16 pieces) and blend them in. Drop by teaspoonfuls onto the prepared cookie sheet and press a piece of black walnut onto the top of each cookie. Bake 12 minutes or until brown across the top. Makes about 16 cookies.
Pawpaw Custard3
Ingredients: 1 cup pawpaw pulp, 2 oz grated coconut, 1¼ cups half and half, 1 tsp vanilla, 3 eggs beaten, 1 dash salt, 2 oz sugar (superfine preferred), zest of orange (optional)
Mix pawpaw pulp with coconut. Layer on bottom of buttered ovenproof casserole dish. Heat half and half mixed with the vanilla until bubbles form. Beat eggs with salt and sugar and still beating, pour on the half and half very slowly so as not to curdle the eggs. Add the orange rind if using. Pour over fruit and place in a pan of hot water. Bake in a moderate oven (375o F) for 30 minutes or until custard is set. Turn out if possible when cool to show off the fruit layer.
It's easy to freeze pawpaw pulp in quart freezer bags or ice cube trays. Thaw for use in recipes or toss directly into a smoothie.

Bon Appétit!

(1; 2,3; 4;;;; top photo from PlantFiles/jmorth)