Pawpaw, Asimina triloba, is a lovely understory tree native to Maryland that has been receiving increased attention these days. It’s high time the fascinating story of these wonderful trees is told and more folks are privy to the delicious edible fruit, as well.
Pawpaw trees can grow up to 40 feet tall, but are generally smaller and occur in colonies due to creeping underground sprouts. They are almost totally impervious to deer damage and the fruit is eagerly eaten by many species of wildlife, as well as people who are lucky enough to know about and find the ripe fruit at the right time.
Due to their strong odor, the sizable leaves, which can be as large as a foot long and three inches wide, are usually not bothered by deer. This lack of favor makes the pawpaw likely to become a predominant understory tree in the right conditions, where heavy deer browse is damaging to many other species. If you think you’ve found a pawpaw tree, try crushing and sniffing a small part of a leaf and you’ll know right away if you have one. The odor is very strong and distinctive, reminding some folks--those old enough to know, or those from more rural areas--of kerosene. Years ago, and even now in some of the more off-grid areas of our state, kerosene was a primary source of fuel for lamps and heating. The nearest equivalent odor would be jet fuel, or even the milder odor of green pepper.
The flavor profile of the fruit, however, is a totally different story and reminds one of banana, mango, and vanilla with a hint of citrus and pineapple, making the description sound somewhat like an exotic wine tasting. Shaped like a small mango, the fruit fits comfortably in the palm of the hand, has somewhat large, dark seeds inside, and is green on the tree. As it begins to ripen, sometime between September and October, it begins to turn yellow-brown with darker green to black spots appearing. It also ripens very rapidly once off the tree and needs to be eaten quickly before it rots. For this reason, and because the flesh of the fruit is very soft and has a custard-like texture, it doesn’t travel well, and this is why we never find it in markets and stores. If you find yourself craving to know more about growing it, eating it, cooking with it, or just supporting its propagation, you might enjoy attending the pawpaw festival at Long Creek Homestead just north of Frederick in mid to late September every year. Details can be found at ecologiadesign.com.
Pawpaw is only one of many variations of the name for these trees. Many geographic entities lend their name, combined with banana, to give it a number of regional common names such as Missouri banana, Ozark banana, Kentucky banana, and so on. Other names are hillbilly mango and American custard apple, but the name “pawpaw” probably is derived from the Spanish word ‘papaya’ due to its similarities. They are generally found in colonies in bottom areas near streams. They are not capable of self-pollinating, but do propagate easily from shoots; nearby trees can be genetically related by underground roots. If you find a single pawpaw tree with fruit, you can be assured that there are others around. Various pollinators visit the trees, so the pollen could have come from quite a distance. Pawpaw trees are also the host species for the divine zebra swallowtail, which is some true butterfly royalty.
The increase in pawpaw is yet another of the many changes in our forests caused, at least in some part, by the overpopulation of whitetail deer in our region and in many others. It just so happens that this particular impact has a tasty result!
Article by Claude Eans and Bethany Dell'Angello. FCFCDB Board members
Nature note for 8/8/2020