(Annonaceae – custard apple family)
A temperate zone representative of a primarily tropical family, the pawpaw is distinctly tropical in appearance. It typically develops into a small tree, with large drooping leaves to 1′ long. Sends up root suckers and tends to form a small grove in time if it is allowed to. The purple flowers, 1-2″ across, appear in spring before the leaves develop. The fruits, which ripen in fall and may be anywhere from 2-6″ long, look somewhat like elongated potatoes. Pawpaw fruit was an important food for the Indigenous people and early settlers; it is again now beginning to attract the attention it deserves. Good-flavored pawpaw fruit has been compared to a sweet, rich egg custard in taste and consistency. Known as the banana of the woods. The largest native fruit in North America.
Dr. William Desmond, writing about the currently ongoing work to develop the pawpaw as a cultivated crop in the Fall ’96 issue of Pomona, the magazine of the North American Fruit Explorers (NAFEX, Rt. 1, Box 94, Chapin, IL 62628), mentions some interesting facts about this plant. “The fruits were reported to once have saved Lewis and Clark from starvation in 1806. Daniel Boone and Mark Twain were reported to have been pawpaw fans.” Desmond also mentions that in work done over the past 16 years at Purdue University, pharmacognosist Dr. Jerry McLaughlin has identified about 30 biologically active compounds from pawpaw plants. One of these, asimicin, has been “a million times more effective than adriamycin (a standard chemotherapy drug) in treating human cancers in cell culture. One molecule of asimicin is enough to kill a cancer cell.”
The tree is notably free of pests and diseases. It is said that even cows, goats, rabbits (and presumably, deer) will scarcely touch it. One of the few insects which uses the pawpaw tree as a food source is the larva of the beautiful zebra swallowtail butterfly. Prefers moist, rich soil with a near neutral pH, but is quite adaptable. Unusually tolerant of shade for a fruit tree, and can bear fruit even when growing in the forest understory (but should have plenty of sun for best fruit production). The plants offered here are grown from seed from cultivated varieties. At least two trees should be planted for cross-pollination. The trees begin blossoming when they are about 6′ tall. Note: In rare instances, eating the fruit causes allergic reactions.