Asimina triloba, the papaw, pawpaw, paw paw, or paw-paw, among many regional names, is a small deciduous tree native to the eastern United States and Canada, producing a large, yellowish-green to brown fruit. It belongs to the genus Asimina in the same plant family (the Annonaceae) as the custard-apple, cherimoya, sweetsop, ylang-ylang and soursop.
|Asimina triloba in fruit|
|Scientific classification |
|Natural range of Asimina triloba|
The pawpaw is a patch-forming (clonal) understory tree found in well-drained, deep, fertile bottom-land and hilly upland habitat, with large, simple leaves. Pawpaw fruits are the largest edible fruit indigenous to the United States (not counting gourds, which are typically considered vegetables rather than fruit for culinary purposes, although in botany they are classified as fruit).
This plant's scientific name is Asimina triloba. The genus name Asimina is adapted from the Native American (probably Miami-Illinois) name assimin or rassimin through the French colonial asiminier. The epithet triloba in the species' scientific name refers to the flowers' three-lobed calices and doubly three-lobed corollas, the shape not unlike a tricorne hat.
The common name of this species is variously spelled pawpaw, paw paw, paw-paw, and papaw. It probably derives from the Spanish papaya, an American tropical and sub-tropical fruit (Carica papaya) sometimes also called "papaw", perhaps because of the superficial similarity of their fruits and the fact that both have very large leaves. The name pawpaw or papaw, first recorded in print in English in 1598, originally meant the giant herb Carica papaya or its fruit (as it still commonly does in many English-speaking communities, including Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa). Daniel F. Austin's Florida Ethnobotany states that:
The original "papaw" ... is Carica papaya. By 1598, English-speaking people in the Caribbean were calling these plants "pawpaws" or "papaws" ... [yet later, when English-speakers settled in] the temperate Americas they found another tree with a similarly aromatic, sweet fruit. It reminded them of the "papaya", which had already become "papaw", so that is what they called these different plants ... By 1760 the names "papaw" and "pawpaw" were being applied to A. triloba.
Yet Asimina triloba has had numerous local common names, many of which compare it to a banana rather than to pawpaw or papaya (i.e. to Carica papaya). These include: wild banana, prairie banana, Indiana banana, Hoosier banana, West Virginia banana, Kansas banana, Kentucky banana, Michigan banana, Missouri banana, Appalachian banana, Ozark banana, Indian banana, American custard apple, banango, the poor man's banana, as well as asimoya, Quaker delight and hillbilly mango.
Asimina triloba is a large shrub or small tree growing to a height of 35 feet (11 m), rarely as tall as 45 feet (14 m), with trunks 8–12 inches (20–30 cm) or more in diameter. The large leaves of pawpaw trees are clustered symmetrically at the ends of the branches, giving a distinctive imbricated appearance to the tree's foliage.
The leaves of the species are simple, alternate and spirally arranged, entire, deciduous, obovate-lanceolate, 10–12 inches (25–30 cm) long, 4–5 inches (10–13 cm) broad, and wedge-shaped at the base, with an acute apex and an entire margin, with the midrib and primary veins prominent. The petioles are short and stout, with a prominent adaxial groove. Stipules are lacking. The expanding leaves are conduplicate, green, covered with rusty tomentum beneath, and hairy above; when fully grown they are smooth, dark green above, and paler beneath. When bruised, the leaves have a disagreeable odor similar to a green bell pepper. In autumn the leaves are a rusty yellow, allowing pawpaw groves to be spotted from a long distance.
Pawpaw flowers are perfect, about 1–2 inches (3–5 cm) across, rich red-purple or maroon when mature, with three sepals and six petals. They are borne singly on stout, hairy, axillary peduncles. The flowers are produced in early spring at the same time as or slightly before the new leaves appear, and have a faint fetid or yeasty smell.
The fruit of the pawpaw is a large, yellowish-green to brown berry, 2–6 inches (5–15 cm) long and 1–3 inches (3–8 cm) broad, weighing from 0.7–18 ounces (20–510 g), containing several brown or black seeds 1⁄2–1 inch (15–25 mm) in diameter embedded in the soft, edible fruit pulp. The conspicuous fruits begin developing after the plants flower; they are initially green, maturing by September or October to yellow or brown. When mature, the heavy fruits bend the weak branches down.
- Calyx: Sepals three, valvate in bud, ovate, acuminate, pale green, downy.
- Corolla: Petals six, in two rows, imbricate in the bud. Inner row acute, erect, nectariferous. Outer row broadly ovate, reflexed at maturity. Petals at first are green, then brown, and finally become dull purple or maroon and conspicuously veiny.
- Stamens: Indefinite, densely packed on the globular receptacle. Filaments short; anthers extrorse, two-celled, opening longitudinally.
- Pollen: shed as permanent tetrads.
- Pistils: Several, on the summit of the receptacle, projecting from the mass of stamens. Ovary one-celled; stigma sessile; ovules many.
- Branchlets: light brown, tinged with red, marked by shallow grooves.
- Winter buds: Small, of two kinds, the leaf buds pointed and closely appressed to the twigs, and the flower buds round, brown, and fuzzy.
- Bark: Light gray, sometimes blotched with lighter gray spots, sometimes covered with small excrescences, divided by shallow fissures. Inner bark tough, fibrous. The bark with a very disagreeable odor when bruised.
- Wood: Pale, greenish yellow, sapwood lighter; light, soft, coarse-grained and spongy with a specific gravity of 0.3969 and a density of 24.74 pounds per cubic foot (396.3 kg/m3).
- Longevity of fruit production: undetermined
Range and ecology
Asimina triloba, the pawpaw, is native to the Eastern, Southern, and Midwestern United States and adjacent Ontario, Canada, from New York west to southeastern Nebraska, and south to northern Florida and eastern Texas.
The tree commonly grows in floodplains and shady, rich bottomlands, where it often forms a dense, clonally spreading undergrowth in the forest, often appearing as a patch or thicket of individual small slender trees. Pawpaws are not the first to colonize a disturbed site (arriving roughly four years after a clearcut), but may become dominant and slow the establishment of oaks and hickories. Although shade-tolerant, pawpaws do not persist in undisturbed old growth forest. Pawpaws spread locally primarily by root suckers; sexual reproduction by seed does also occur, but at a fairly low rate.
Pawpaw flowers are insect-pollinated, but fruit production is sometimes limited as few if any pollinators are attracted to the flower's faint, or sometimes non-existent scent. The flowers produce an odor similar to that of rotting meat to attract blowflies or carrion beetles for cross pollination. Other insects that are attracted to pawpaw flowers include scavenging fruit flies, carrion flies and beetles. Because of irregular fruit production, some believe pawpaw plants are self-incompatible, requiring cross-pollination between trees of different clones (patches).
The fruits of the pawpaw are eaten by a variety of mammals, including raccoons, gray foxes, opossums, squirrels, and black bears.
The disagreeable-smelling leaves, twigs, and bark of pawpaws contain natural insecticides known as acetogenins. Pawpaw leaves and twigs are seldom consumed by rabbits, deer, or goats, or by many insects. However, mules have been seen eating pawpaw leaves in Maryland.
Larvae of the zebra swallowtail (Protographium marcellus), a butterfly, feed exclusively on young leaves of Asimina triloba and various other pawpaw (Asimina) species, but never occur in great numbers on the plants. Chemicals in the pawpaw leaves confer protection from predation throughout the butterfly's life, as trace amounts of acetogenins remain present, making them unpalatable to birds and other predators.
On a global (range-wide) scale, the common pawpaw (Asimina triloba) has a NatureServe global conservation rank of G5 (very common).
In Canada, where the species is found only in portions of southern Ontario, it has a NatureServe national conservation rank of N3 (vulnerable), and a NatureServe subnational conservation rank of S3 (vulnerable) in Ontario. The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources has given the species a general status of "Sensitive", and its populations there are monitored.
The natural distribution of the common pawpaw (Asimina triloba) in North America, prior to the Ice Ages and lasting until roughly 10,000 years ago, was done by certain megafauna up until they became extinct during the Quaternary extinction event. After the arrival of humans and the subsequent extinction of megafauna that were distributing Asimina triloba, the probable distribution of these large fruit-bearing plants has been by humans.
The earliest documented mention of pawpaws is in the 1541 report of the Spanish de Soto expedition, who found Native Americans cultivating it east of the Mississippi River. The Lewis and Clark Expedition consumed pawpaws during their travels. Chilled pawpaw fruit was a favorite dessert of George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson planted it at Monticello, his home in Virginia.
In cultivation, lack of successful pollination is the most common cause of poor fruiting. Cultivation is best in hardiness zones 5-9 and trees take 7-8 years from seedling to fruiting. Cross-pollination of at least two different genetic varieties of the plant is recommended, and growers often resort to hand pollination or to use of pollinator attractants such as spraying fish emulsion or hanging chicken necks or other meat near the open flowers to attract pollinators. While pawpaws are larval hosts for the zebra swallowtail butterfly, these caterpillars are usually present only at low density, and not detrimental to the foliage of the trees.
Pawpaws have never been cultivated for their fruits on the scale of apples or peaches, primarily because pawpaw fruits ripen to the point of fermentation soon after they are picked, and only frozen fruit will store or ship well. Other methods of preservation include dehydration, production of jams or jellies, and pressure canning (using the numerical values for bananas).
Cultivation of pawpaws for fruit production has attracted interest, particularly among organic growers, as a fruit with few to no pests that can successfully be grown in its native environment without pesticides. The commercial cultivation and harvesting of pawpaws is strong in southeastern Ohio and also being explored in Kentucky and Maryland, as well as various areas outside the species' native range, including California, the Pacific Northwest, and Massachusetts. Kentucky State University is the site of the USDA National Clonal Germplasm Repository for asimina species.
The pawpaw is also gaining in popularity among landscapers and backyard gardeners because of the tree's distinctive growth habit, the appeal of its fresh fruit, and its relatively low maintenance needs once established.
Trees are easily grown from seed. It is easiest to simply plant an entire fruit in the ground or place a seed in the ground immediately upon eating the fruit. Seeds should not be dried out as they will lose viability if they dehydrate to 5% moisture. The seeds need to be stratified by moist cold storage for 60-100 days at 35–45 °F (2–7 °C) (some publications suggest 90-120 days). They will lose their viability if stored for 3 years or more; some seeds survive if stored for 2 years. Germination is hypogeal and cotyledons remain within the seed coat. Strictly speaking, hypogeal means the cotyledons stay in the soil, acting as a food store for the seedling until the plumule emerges from the soil on the epicotyl or true stem. However, pawpaw seeds have occasionally been observed to emerge from the ground and form the true stem and plumule above ground.
Propagation using cuttings has generally not been successful.
Desirable cultivars are propagated by chip budding or whip grafting onto a root stock. Pawpaw seeds do not grow "true to type" — each individual seed in a fruit is genetically different from each other and from its parent tree. Purchased cultivars do not produce seeds true to type, either, which is why cultivars are all grafted trees. Root sucker seedlings, however, are all genetically identical to its host.
Commercial nurseries usually ship seedlings in containers, usually grafted cultivars, but other nurseries such as the Kentucky Division of Forestry ship bareroot seedlings for reforestation projects and area homeowners.
Blowflies, such as C. vomitoria, are known pollinators of these plants.
The named varieties producing large fruit and performing well in Kentucky per research trials are NC-1, Overleese, Potomac, Shenandoah, Sunflower, Susquehanna, Wabash, KSU-Atwood, KSU-Benson and KSY-Chappell.
|Nutritional value per 100 g (3.5 oz)|
|Dietary fiber||2.6 g|
|Vitamin A equiv.|
|†Percentages are roughly approximated using US recommendations for adults.|
As described by horticulturist Barbara Damrosch, the fruit of the pawpaw "looks a bit like mango, but with pale yellow, custardy, spoonable flesh and black, easy-to-remove seeds." Wild-collected pawpaw fruits, ripe in late August to mid-September, have long been a favorite treat throughout the tree's extensive native range in eastern North America, and on occasion are sold locally at farmers' markets. Pawpaw fruits have a sweet, custard-like flavor somewhat similar to banana, mango, and cantaloupe, varying significantly by source or cultivar, with more protein than most fruits. Nineteenth-century American agronomist E. Lewis Sturtevant described pawpaws as
Ohio botanist William B. Werthner noted that
Fresh fruits of the pawpaw are commonly eaten raw, either chilled or at room temperature. However, they can be kept only 2–3 days at room temperature, or about a week if refrigerated. The easily bruised pawpaw fruits do not ship well unless frozen. Where pawpaws grow, the fruit pulp is also often used locally in baked dessert recipes, with pawpaw often substituted with volumetric equivalency in many banana-based recipes. Pawpaws may also be blended into ice cream or included in pancakes.
According to a report from the Kentucky State University Pawpaw Program (right table), raw pawpaw (with skin) in a 100 gram amount provides 80 Calories and is a rich source (20% or more of the Daily Value, DV) of vitamin C (22% DV), magnesium (32% DV), iron (54% DV) and manganese (124% DV). The fruit also contains a moderate amount (10–19% DV) of vitamin A (11% DV).
Phytochemical extracts of the leaves and fruit contain acetogenins, including the neurotoxin annonacin. The seeds and bark contain the chemical asimitrin and other acetogenins, including asimin, asiminacin and asiminecin.
Effect on insects
Due to the presence of acetogenins, the leaves, twigs, and bark of pawpaw trees can be used to make an organic insecticide. The one notable exception is the zebra swallowtail butterfly (Eurytides marcellus), whose larvae feed on the leaves of various species of Asimina, conferring protection from predation throughout the butterfly's life, as trace amounts of acetogenins remain present, making them unpalatable to birds and other predators.
The hard, brown, shiny lima-bean-sized seeds were sometimes carried as pocket pieces in Ohio.
Where, oh where is dear little Nellie?
Where, oh where is dear little Nellie?
Where, oh where is dear little Nellie?
Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch
Pickin' up pawpaws, puttin' 'em in your pocket
Pickin' up pawpaws, puttin' 'em in your pocket
Pickin' up pawpaws, puttin' 'em in your pocket
Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch
He notes that "picking up pawpaws" refers to gathering the ripe, fallen fruit from beneath the trees, and that the "pocket" in the song is that of an apron or similar tie-on pocket, not a modern pants or blue jeans pocket, into which pawpaws would hardly fit. A "pawpaw patch" refers to the plant's characteristic patch-forming clonal growth habit.
The pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is the basis for various place and school names in the United States, almost all using the older spelling variant "paw paw".
- The Paw Paw Tunnel in Maryland is a 3118-foot (950-m) canal tunnel completed in 1850 to bypass about five miles of the six-mile-long Paw Paw Bends of the Potomac River near the town of Paw Paw, West Virginia, all ultimately named after the pawpaw tree.
- In Michigan, the Paw Paw River is named for the pawpaw trees that grew along its banks. Paw Paw Lake and Little Paw Paw Lake are both tributaries to the river. The town of Paw Paw, Michigan is located at the juncture of two branches of the Paw Paw River. The Paw Paw Railroad (1857–1887) operated a 4-mile (6.4 km) rail line between Lawton and Paw Paw, in Van Buren County, Michigan.
- The village of Paw Paw, Illinois was named after a nearby grove of pawpaw trees.
- The community of Paw Paw, Indiana in Miami County, and townships of Paw Paw Township in DeKalb County and Paw Paw Township in Wabash County are all named after groves of native pawpaw trees.
- Paw Paw, Kentucky, a community in easternmost Kentucky, was named after the native fruit tree.
- The (now extinct) town of Paw Paw, Missouri was named after the trees.
- Nineteenth-century naturalist and painter John James Audubon included pawpaw foliage and fruits in the background of his illustration of the yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) in his classic work, The Birds of America (1827–1838).
- Pawpaw fruits and a pawpaw leaf are featured in the painting Still Life with Pawpaws (c. 1870-1875) by Edward Edmondson, Jr. (1830–1884), at the Dayton Art Institute in Dayton, Ohio.
- The third Thursday in September has been designated as National Pawpaw Day by the National Day Calendar. It was announced on September 19, 2019 at Kentucky State University's monthly sustainable agriculture workshop, The Third Thursday Thing.
- The pawpaw (Asimina triloba) was designated as Ohio's state native fruit in 2009.
- Since 1999, The Ohio Pawpaw Growers' Association has sponsored an annual Ohio Pawpaw Festival at Lake Snowden, near Albany, Ohio.
- Since 2012, Delaware's Alapocas Run State Park has hosted an annual Pawpaw Folk Festival featuring tastings of the fruit.
- The larva of the Pawpaw sphinx moth feeds on pawpaw fruit.
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