It’s hard to resist a plant with monikers such as Hoosier banana, poor man's banana, or custard apple, even more so when it produces the largest edible fruit native to North America—free for the picking! The fruits are 4-6” long and have a texture and taste similar to bananas with hints of mango, vanilla, and citrus. The flesh is an orangey yellow and contains rows of dark, glossy seeds, that when cut open, resemble an animal's paw, giving rise to its common name. Fruits are preceded by glamorous, upside-down maroon flowers shaped like a teacup. Large, drooping leaves up to one foot in length give pawpaw a tropical appearance, and turn a bright lemony yellow in late fall.
As an understory plant, pawpaw is tall and leggy as it reaches for sunlight under the canopy. In full sun and open spaces, it takes on a more compact, pyramidal shape. At least two genetically diverse plants are required for fruit production. This simply means the plants must be seed-grown, not clones or off-shoots from the original tree.
During the Great Depression, the fruits were eaten as a substitute for other fruits, giving it one of its common names (poor man’s banana). The Shawnee thought it special enough to honor it one month a year. The Lewis and Clark expedition lived for two weeks on the nutritional fruits when supplies ran low. For white settlers, pawpaw was often the only fresh fruit available. After years of appreciation, pawpaw fell into a period of disregard. In recent years, enthusiasm has grown for the fruit and its uses. Integration Acres, located in Albany, Ohio, is the world’s “largest pawpaw processor.” It sells frozen pulp and mixed-fruit pawpaw pops. In Zanesville, Ohio, Weasel Boy Brewing formulated Weasel Paw Pawpaw Pale Ale. Pawpaw lovers gather yearly at the Ohio Pawpaw Festival in Albany, Ohio, for three days of everything pawpaw.
Native habitats typically include bottomlands, wooded slopes and edges, ravines and stream banks. Pawpaw is expanding from well-drained, lowland habitats into drier, upland forests because they aren’t pressured by deer as many competing plant species are.
Beautiful in a shrub border, along woodland margins, and in native-plant gardens. Does well when sited in damp areas along ponds or streams.
Grows 15-30’ tall and just as wide; size and shape depend upon sun exposure and location.
Fruits best in full sun, although seedlings appreciate partial or dappled shade for the first two years.
Grows best in well-drained, moist, rich soils, but adapts to heavy soils and periods of standing water.
The trunk is typically multi-stemmed, but can be pruned to maintain a single stem. The bark is smooth and brown with rough lenticels.
Pawpaw is a host plant for 13 species of Lepidoptera larvae, including one specialist butterfly, the zebra swallowtail (pictured first), and two specialist moths: stinging rose caterpillar and pawpaw sphinx (pictured next). Flies and beetles are the main pollinators, though the flowers do not have a perceivable smell to most humans. Opossums, foxes, squirrels, raccoons, and many species of birds feast on the ripe fruits.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Herbal practitioners have used the seeds, bark, and leaves in a variety of remedies. It’s also used as a cough syrup and expectorant. Native Americans used the seeds as a powder to deter head lice.
Pawpaw fruit supplies small amounts of fiber, protein, and fat, and ample amounts of vitamin C, potassium, iron, manganese, and copper.
Native Americans are believed to have planted and cultivated the pawpaw. The Iroquois mashed the fruit into small, dried cakes, which were soaked in water and mixed with cornbread or used to make a sauce. Fruits may be eaten raw or used in smoothies, frozen confections, salsas, puddings, yogurt, pies and other baked goods, and jam. Ripe pawpaws have a strong, fruity aroma and the consistency of a ripened peach. They will last for several days at room temperature and up to a week when refrigerated. The ripe flesh can be pureed and frozen for later use. It may cause nausea in some people and is recommended to be consumed in moderation.
Young leaves smell like tar and make a fairly effective insect repellent when rubbed on skin and clothes.
The Cherokee used the bark to make ropes for stringing fish.
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