Forgotten Fruit: Spotlight on the Paw Paw: Our Largest Native Fruit

By Hilli Levin, Fall 2015

American Custard Apple. West Virginia Banana. These are just a few colloquial names for the soft, fleshy, and pale-green paw paw (Asimina triloba). Our largest native fruit, paw paws range from three to six inches long and are indigenous to the temperate forests of the southeast.

The paw paw fruit was long cultivated by Native Americans and first documented by Quaker naturalist John Bartram around 1736. Later, paw paws show up in journal entries from early explorers Lewis and Clark. Founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were known to grow paw paw trees. Towns and lakes ranging from the South to the Midwest have been named after the unassuming fruit. It has even inspired a popular and enduring American folk song, “Way Down Yonder in the Paw Paw Patch.” 

The yellowish flesh of the paw paw has the bright, sweet flavors of mango and pineapple with the custardy smoothness of a banana. Paw paws are most commonly eaten raw, cut in half with the large flat seeds removed. They make excellent additions to chilled or frozen desserts like sorbets and smoothies, can be incorporated into breads and pies, used as a base for custards and tarts, fermented into wine, and even pickled. Lovers of “superfruits” will be happy to know that the fruits are rich in essential minerals, proteins, amino acids, antioxidants and Vitamin C. 

Despite their tasty appeal, and their rich and storied place in America’s history, the paw paw has all but disappeared from common knowledge: ask any group of young folk if they’ve eaten a paw paw and you’ll likely receive blank stares.

What has caused this fascinating fruit to disappear into relative obscurity? The trees themselves, although hardy and largely disease-resistant, are difficult to plant in orchards as they prefer the partial shade and rich soils found near riverbeds. What’s more, ripe paw paws fall from the tree - they are not picked. Once ripe, fruits last only one to two days. Due to their short shelf-life, it is almost impossible to commercialize and offer these fruits at modern grocery stores.

Paw paw fans instead turn to foraging, often competing with hungry squirrels and opossums for the fruits in the forests.

Paw paw season begins in late July and typically runs through the first weeks of August. If you would like to sink your teeth into this treasured treat, try looking for them near riverbeds or question farmers at market. If a lucky farmer with paw paw trees on her property knows you are interested, she may bring a limited supply of the scrumptious fruits to market with you in mind. Intrepid home gardeners might even consider planting the hardy trees in wet, shady corners of their property. Within a few years, they will watch the progression from beautiful, purple-maroon blossoms in spring, to succulent fruits in fall, and help the paw paw regain its fame as an indigenous delight.