Native Tropical Fruit: Do You Have a Pawpaw Patch?
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The old-timers still tell stories about going down to the “pawpaw patch” to get the sweet, unusual fruit in the late summer to early fall; times when we still wandered the woods in awe of all the plants around us. Do you have a pawpaw patch on your property? Do you know what to look for? Let’s go a-hunting for pawpaws!
Pawpaws’ scientific name is Asimina triloba, and it is native across middle and eastern North America. There are a couple other Asimina species native to Florida, as well. Its closest relatives are firmly tropical though. They are in the tropical plant family, the Annonaceae, along with the soursop and custard apples of Central America.
The trees are fairly nondescript. I know I always lose them for a moment in the forest when I am looking for them. They are deciduous, meaning they lose their leaves in the Fall, and have beautiful orange/yellow fall color. They are medium-sized trees, maturing to 15-20 feet tall in the wild. They have a unique growth habit though: they sucker! This means they send out runners and the trees continue to send out additional stems around the area.
The plants flower in the spring, around March or April, just as they are starting to leaf out. The flowers are a deep maroon and blend in with the shadows of the
forest. If you do happen to see one and stick your nose in it, you will be met with an unpleasant rotten smell. They are pollinated by flies! It seems something that smells rotten would bear such sweet fruit.
Where Do They Live?
For anyone who has eaten a pawpaw, you know that smooth, tart, sweet, tropical taste is unlike anything else in the wilds of North America! The pawpaw earns the common name ‘custard apple’ fairly. You have your work cut out for you though, if you want to get one of these tasty treats in the wild.
Pawpaws prefer moist, well-draining slopes in the understory of other trees. You will commonly find them just a few feet upslope from a river or perennial stream, in the dappled sunlight from oaks and hackberries. They do like to be in moist, but not waterlogged soils and are a great indicator plant of soil texture and moisture, and underground springs. There are pawpaws throughout the woods of Lee County, from Pocket to Deep River to Broadway!
The fruits ripen throughout the late summer and into fall across the United States.
In Lee County, our pawpaws are ripening in August and September. They are hard to see in tall trees, as the fruit blends in with the light green undersides. We have to pick them before they are ripe, because the fruits will quickly fall after they are ripe and animals are much more savvy at picking them up before humans ever find them. Who can blame them? Yum!
What Should You Do?
If you discover a pawpaw patch on your property, consider yourself lucky! You have a high-quality habitat that is worth preserving. You can pick pawpaws in the late summer and know you are supporting wildlife by having the trees in place. The zebra swallowtail, which looks like a white tiger swallowtail to the untrained eye, lays its eggs on pawpaw and the caterpillars feed exclusively on Asimina!
Enjoy your pawpaws where they grow in the wild. Do not attempt to move pawpaw plants, as they have deep taproots which are usually broken when we try to move them. If you want to plant a pawpaw in a place in your yard, just remember they like moist, well-draining soil! There are nurseries that sell both wild types and named cultivars, which have been selected to have superior fruit!
If you have never had a pawpaw, just you wait! There is a vendor at the Sanford Farmers’ Market that starts coming in the late summer/early fall when his trees start producing. Come on down and get one!
Amanda Wilkins is the Horticulture Agent for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.