Plant for creamy deliciousness, for soil retention and stream restoration, for embracing local river abundance!
Hardy from Zones 4-8. 12-30 feet tall, similar width. At least two trees for good pollination.
“Pickin' up pawpaws, puttin' 'em in your pocket
Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch!”
Pawpaws are our favorite way to sweeten late summer and early fall! We harvest the creamy fallen fruits as they tumble down and eat them fresh with spoons or turn them into ice cream. The yellow-orange pulp tastes something like an Appalachian banana mango custard with caramel overtones, but Pawpaw really has its own unique incredible flavor. You can’t find Pawpaws in many grocery stores because they don’t ship well; the fruits rot too quickly and in fact taste the best when they’re about to turn. These tap-rooted trees are fond of rivers, spreading through suckers in patches throughout bottomlands and riparian edges. They make a fine understory to Black Walnut! Once established, our Pawpaws require very little attention other than light pruning and they start readily from the large shiny-black seeds, once spread by sloths and mammoths and then by native orchardists.
Some believe the earliest written account of Pawpaw comes from 1541, when Hernando de Soto’s colonizing expeditions encountered indigenous tribes in the Mississippi Valley cultivating the largest edible fruit native to North America. But old writings about Pawpaw are hard to verify because for a long time the name pawpaw was assigned to Papaya! In fact, it still is in some places. How Asimina triloba also got the name is a little unclear. Some suggest that Spanish conquistadors thought the fruit looked so much like Papaya that they gave it a similar name, but an old medical text reports that enslaved people forcibly imported from the West Indies began using the word for this native tree. Seems pretty possible, since the Taino people from those islands spoke an Arawak language from which we get the word Papaya, and also Maize. The scientific name comes from the Powhatan word assimin. Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) call them hadi’ot, and their traditional use involved mashing and drying the fruit for sauces, smoothies, and corncakes. Pawpaw is high in niacin, a vital nutrient unavailable in Maize unless it’s nixtamalized, so mixing both into cakes ensured you got your daily dose! Aside from the fragrant fruit, the tree itself provides incredible gifts. Many indigenous tribes, including the Cherokee, have used the inner bark as rope and and fishing line, as well as fiber for mending clothes and weaving baskets.
Pawpaw is the only temperate member of the tropical Custard Apple family, one with many relatives in Africa. The shape and taste of Pawpaw might have been familiar to early enslaved Africans. Michael Twitty, a culinary historian focused on the cuisine of enslaved African Americans, has found Pawpaw patches outside the quarters of enslaved people and records of the fruit sustaining runaways in dark riverside understories of the Underground Railroad. Along with Persimmon and Honey Locust, Pawpaw gave nutritional diversity to meager enslaved diets, and the sweet-smelling pulp attracted raccoons and possums that became hearty stews. Fortunately, very few critters like to eat the leaves or twigs, which can be used as natural insecticide and makes the tree pretty deer-proof. The one exception is the Zebra Swallowtail, which coevolved with Pawpaw in temperate North America. The small flowers smell a little like a funky ferment, enjoyed by Pawpaw’s pollinators, carrion beetles and blowflies. Some oldtimers also suggest fertilizing with rotting roadkill to attract the pollinators!
Twitty observes that early American writings described Pawpaw as fit only for “Negroes and Indians,” for those who had no option but to eat freely what the local earth grew instead of what could be bought from afar. That reality earned it the nickname “Poor Man’s Banana,” a racist money-rich dismissal of abundant gifts and seasonal patience. We’re grateful to those who tended and learned from this tree, and we’re proud to plant Poor Man’s Banana along Blacks Run!
We propagate our Pawpaws from improved cultivars and large fruits from wild groves on the forks of the Shenandoah Rivers.