Pickin’ Up Pawpaws: America’s Biggest, Tastiest, Once-Forgotten Native Fruit

September 29, 2020 Updated: September 29, 2020

Sitting on my lawn chair with a newspaper on my lap in Groff Memorial Park in New Holland, Pennsylvania, under the canopy of a small pawpaw tree grove, watching the sun begin to go down upon a lazy late-summer Sunday afternoon, the silence of my blissful reverie was broken by a soft thud not six feet from my head. 

I heard some leaves rustling halfway toward the peak of a nearby 20-foot-high pawpaw tree and looked up to see a beady-eyed gray squirrel, motionless, as if waiting for my reply. After making contact with those mischievous obsidian eyes, it occurred to me that he seemed quite amused. He flicked his tail. Challenge accepted: the food fight was on.

After scooting on over to the pawpaw laying in the grass—one that was now ruined by a few tiny chomps taken out of it, not to mention its free-fall clash with the ground (did he not realize that at $6 per pound, each pawpaw represents a two-dollar bill?)—I picked it up and launched it into the upper branches. By then he was long gone. Thankfully, either his eyesight was not that great or his stomach too small; I was able to gather up a small backpack’s worth of this year’s first harvest.

In its native habitat from Nebraska to northern Texas and across to the East Coast, the pawpaw is sure to pique the curiosity of all who discover it. Oblong-shaped and coming in sizes up to six inches long and more than two inches in diameter, is considered to be North America’s largest indigenous edible fruit. The pawpaw tree, similar in appearance to and belonging to the same order as the magnolia, is the only member of the tropical Annonoceae (custard apple) family to grow in this part of the world.  

The pawpaw is North America’s largest indigenous edible fruit. (EQRoy/Shutterstock)

Encountering a pawpaw in the wild, breathing in its aroma and tasting the yellow, banana custard-like pulp for the first time, it’s difficult to find any preexisting frame of reference to fully describe it. Some people who have tasted it sense the presence of pears. Others detect a hint of pineapple or mango, infused with an otherworldly spice. By comparison, how does one fully describe the sensation of eating ice cream to someone who has never tried it?

An American Original

There are more than 20 different names for the native North American pawpaw, classified as Asimini triloba. For example, the Choctaw Indian name for it is umbi. Other local names include prairie banana, Appalachian banana, and poor man’s banana. As the story goes, the name pawpaw (which itself can also be spelled papaw or paw-paw) likely stems from an English corruption of a Spanish corruption of a native Caribbean word for fruit. (To add to the confusion, the word pawpaw is often interchanged with the word papaya, a tropical fruit of a different genus and species—Carica papaya.)

Native American tribes ate pawpaws raw, or formed and dried the mashed pulp into cakes, to later be reconstituted for cooking. According to the American Health and Diet Project website, pawpaws were enjoyed by George Washington, and helped sustain Lewis and Clark on their journey, possibly due to their high levels of vitamin C, iron, copper, riboflavin, and zinc, as well as elevated levels of protein, compared to oranges, bananas, and apples. 

The skin, which turns from green to a bruised yellow color, indicating the fruit’s ripeness, is quite bitter, probably due to a high level of anthocyanins; it gives me a stomachache unless cooked. The seeds, which some Native American tribes ground up and used to treat head lice, are likewise bitter, and are the subject of research for the cancer-inhibiting properties of compounds known as acetogenins found within. Seed extract can be used as a powerful pesticide as well.  

Finding Pawpaws

For those who have yet to seek and find the elusive pawpaw, you might still have a chance. Depending on where you are, the season typically runs from early to mid-September for cultivated trees, and into early October for those found in the wild. 

Not into scouring the countryside’s secluded groves, and don’t have a cozy relationship with a neighbor who is secretly nurturing a tree in his backyard? Tracking down pawpaws may be as easy as visiting your local farmers market or co-operative. One mid-September weekend, with pawpaw fever coursing through my veins, I was able to find three local vendors within a four-mile radius of each other. One was a roadside farm stand, and the other two were at an indoor-outdoor country market and auction called Roots in Manheim, centrally located within the heart of Amish country, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. 

Pawpaw pulp can be baked into breads and sweets, blended into ices and drinks, and used as a substitute for just about anything prepared with bananas. The website of Kentucky State University’s Pawpaw Research Program lists a host of recipes including meringue, chiffon, and cream pawpaw pies; pawpaw parfait; pawpaw black walnut cookies; spiced pawpaw fruit cake; and for a little fun and entertainment, pawpaw zabaglione, which calls for a dose of passion fruit liqueur. 

But nothing can quite compete with the tried and true way of dealing with this ready-to-eat fruit: grabbing a pawpaw, breaking the skin open, and eating the sweet, custardy pulp out of hand.

Mike Rybacki lives in the heart of Amish country in central Lancaster County, Pa. He is the author of “Henry the Vegetarian Lion,” publisher of the Earth Energy Economy Newsletter, and a certified solar energy installer. He has a passion for promoting individual energy freedom, a debt-free lifestyle, and health assurance through better food choices.