Paw-paw, Indiana Banana, banango, poor-man’s banana
Asimina triloba is a large shrub or small tree growing to a height of 35 feet (11 m) (rarely to 45 feet or 14 m) with a 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, which make spotting pawpaw groves possible 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 in (5–16 cm) long and 1–3 in (3–7 cm) broad, weighing from 0.7–18 oz (20–500 g), containing several brown seeds 1/2 to 1 in (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.
- 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. Sp. gr., 0.3969; weight of cu ft 24.74 lb.
Range and Habitat:
The pawpaw is native to the Eastern, Southern, and Midwestern United States and adjacent southernmost Ontario, Canada, from New York west to southeastern Nebraska, and south to northern Florida and eastern Texas. The pawpaw is a patch-forming (clonal) understory tree found in well-drained, deep, fertile bottom-land and hilly upland habitat.
Paw-paw 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.
As described by horticulturist Barbara Damrosch, the fruit of the pawpaw “looks a bit like mango, but with pale yellow, custardly, 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, custardish 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
… a natural custard, too luscious for the relish of most people”
Ohio botanist William B. Werthner noted that
The fruit … has a tangy wild-wood flavor peculiarly its own. It is sweet, yet rather cloying to the taste and a wee bit puckery – only a boy can eat more than one at a time.
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.Pawpaws are also used for juice-making, as either a fresh pawpaw drink or in drink mixtures (for example, a pawpaw, pineapple, banana, lime, lemon, and orange tea mix. The fruit pulp can also be made into a country wine.
In southern West Virginia, pawpaws are made into a native version of banana nut cake or fruit cake baked inside canning jars, then heat-sealed, reputedly keeping the food for at least a year; however, due to the risk of botulism, preserving cake in a canning jar is not recommended.
In cultivation, lack of successful pollination is the most common cause of poor 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 (Malus domestica) or peaches (Prunus persica), primarily because pawpaw fruits ripen to the point of fermentationsoon 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).
In recent years, cultivation of pawpaws for fruit production has attracted renewed interest, particularly among organic growers, as a native fruit with few to no pests, successfully grown 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
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. However, only container-grown pawpaws should be transplanted; use of bare-rooted pawpaws is not recommended, since their fragile root hairs tend to break off unless a cluster of moist soil is retained on the root mass.
The tough, fibrous inner bark of the pawpaw was used by Native Americans and settlers in the Midwest for making ropes, fishing nets, and mats, and for stringing fish.
Pawpaw logs have been used for split-rail fences in Arkansas.
The hard, brown, shiny lima-bean-sized seeds were sometimes carried as pocket pieces in Ohio.