The Mighty Pawpaw

You might know the pawpaw tree for its delicious yellow fruit, but did you know that this tree has a long and interesting history? Found throughout Ohio and the Eastern United States, the pawpaw is the largest edible fruit native to North America. It’s also Ohio’s state native fruit. Let’s learn some more about the pawpaw tree and how it came to be!

What is a Pawpaw Tree?

They may look nondescript, but pawpaws are mighty in more ways than one! (“Pawpaw” by Flickr user Anna Hesser [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0])

Pawpaw trees are small deciduous trees that grow in groups connected by a complex underground root system. The roots have suckers on them from which new trees grow. The trees give off a perceptible odor (stinky!), which the leaves emit when crushed or torn.

Pawpaw trees have large, oblong leaves that taper sharply outward from the stem, then gradually taper back into a point. The leaves are simple, which means they consist of one leaf blade, and do not form leaflets. They are alternately placed on the branch. They are about 12–28 centimeters long, and around 5–8 centimeters wide.

Pawpaws ripen in September through October each year. (“Pawpaws” by Flickr user deckerme [CC BY 2.0])

Pawpaw fruit looks like a papaya. It is cylindrical with a slight taper at the top and bottom. It is green until it ripens and turns brown. The fruit becomes ripe in September or October, but is only safe to eat for a short period of time. The inside of the fruit can be yellow or white with several large seeds. The taste has been described as a mix between a mango and a banana. The fruit attaches to the branch at an angle, and is usually found in bunches on the tree. The fruit is about 5–15 centimeters long, and around 3–8 centimeters wide.

The History of the Pawpaw Tree

Based on fossil evidence, creatures like mastodons dined on pawpaw fruit. (Photo courtesy Smithsonian Institution Archives)

The earliest fossil evidence of the pawpaw is dated back to the Miocene epoch, about 23 to 5.3 million years ago! Megafauna like mastodons, wooly mammoths and giant sloths enjoyed the fruit from these trees. These animals swallowed the large fruit seeds whole and are believed to be responsible for their dispersion. Although these megafauna eventually went extinct, pawpaw trees were able to survive due to the suckers on their roots. Humans also aided in seed dispersion following the extinction of megafauna.

Written reports of the pawpaw began in 1541. Portuguese explorer Hernando de Soto wrote about the pawpaw tree in his notes on an expedition to the Americas, giving the tree its name for the fruit’s resemblance to papaya. In the Mississippi Valley, indigenous communities grew the pawpaw tree for many purposes. In addition to eating the fruit, they also used the fibers to create rope and ground up the bark for a natural insecticide.

Pawpaw fruit has been enjoyed by many notable figures throughout American History. Jamestown colonists wrote about the pawpaw in the 1600s and American explorer Daniel Boone was known to enjoy the fruit. Former presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were both pawpaw enthusiasts, planting the trees at their respective homes in Mount Vernon and Monticello. Pawpaw fruit even saved Lewis and Clark on their expedition when they ran out of food on their journey home!

Ways to Enjoy Pawpaw!

Pawpaw season is just around the corner! While the fruit is delicious raw, it can also be used in many desserts. It’s best used in recipes that don’t expose it to heat due to its flavor profile. Think ice cream and other frozen treats!

If you’re interested in going pawpaw hunting and learning more from a nature interpreter, check out the Great Parks calendar. Coming up in September, join us at Sharon Woods for the program In Pursuit of Pawpaw. If you’re really wild about pawpaws, you can also check out the Pawpaw Festival, happening September 16–18 in Albany, Ohio.

Corinne Buckley, Nature Interpreter & Caroline Lederle, Nature Interpreter