America’s Forgotten Fruit Tree: The Appalachian Banana

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Paw Paw

Earthy Delights, a company that has been providing professional and home chefs with wild foraged, exotic foods for over 30 years, sells several pawpaw related items, including jam, fresh pawpaws, frozen pawpaw puree, and pawpaw vinegar. Click here to view their full pawpaw product listing.

It’s difficult to even begin to comprehend the amount of mountain knowledge that has been lost over the past half-century in the hills of Appalachia — so many of the basic skills for simply surviving have vanished with the dying off of our region’s old timers and many fear we have lost basic skill sets that will take generations to re-learn.

Today, very few people living in the mountains of Appalachia even know how to identify sassafras, let alone make it into a tea.  Same thing goes for a dozen other effective home remedies that are now ancient history, tucked away in some dusty book one seldom reads.

One of the greatest losses of mountain knowledge over the past generation is, in my opinion, how our country simply forgot about what was once upon a time its favorite fruit tree: The Paw Paw.

The largest edible fruit to grow in the United States, the paw paw was often referred to as “the poor man’s banana” and is native to 26 different states.

As described by horticulturist Barbara Damrosch, the fruit of the pawpaw “looks a bit like mango, but with pale yellow, custardy, spoonable flesh and black, easy-to-remove seeds.”

Pawpaw fruits have a sweet, custardish flavor somewhat similar to banana, mango, and cantaloupe.

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.”

Despite their “puckery” nature, the fruit became a staple part of the diet of early Appalachian settlers.

In 1541, Spanish explorers found Native Americans cultivating the fruits along streams and rivers east of the Mississippi.

The Iroquois used the mashed fruit to make small cakes that were dried and stored. The dried cakes were soaked in water
and cooked to make a sauce or relish that was served with corn bread. Raw and cooked fruits were dried by the sun or on a fire. These were stored for use in the future or taken on hunts.

The Cherokee used the inner bark to make cordage. By twisting the bark, they made string and strong ropes.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition consumed pawpaws during their travels, particularly while traveling via the nation’s rivers.

Chilled pawpaw fruit was a favorite dessert of George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson planted it at Monticello, his home in Virginia.

Unfortunately, due to the fact that Paw Paws cannot be mass-produced and profitably shipped by commercial fruit entities, their consumption has all but ended in the age of consumerism; Paw Paws can only be kept 2–3 days at room temperature, or about a week if refrigerated.  The easily bruised pawpaw fruits do not ship well unless frozen.

As kayaking and a host of other river activities are coming back into the mainstream, Americans are slowly rediscovering the fruit tree that never went away… we just forgot about it as a people.

Earthy Delights, a company that has been providing professional and home chefs with wild foraged, exotic foods for over 30 years, sells several pawpaw related items, including jam, fresh pawpaws, frozen pawpaw puree, and pawpaw vinegar. Click here to view their full pawpaw product listing.

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32 COMMENTS

    • According to the USDA, a Paw Paw (Asimina triloba) is a “perennial tree”.

      The Kentucky State University Cooperative Extension Program also says they are trees: “

        The pawpaw is a tree

      of temperate humid growing zones, requiring warm to hot summers, mild to cold winters, and a minimum of 32 inches (81 cm) of rainfall spread rather evenly throughout the year, with the majority falling in spring and summer.”
      Source — http://www.pawpaw.kysu.edu/pawpaw/ppg.htm

      • yes they are trees………my neighbor has three trees in his backyard …….the are mushy and a bit tasty ……….lol…def an acquired taste

    • I would love to have some but live in Illinois. But would it be possible for you to send me some seeds this summer so I could start me a tree. I will pay postage just let me know. My name is sue Byrd address 910 Madison Gillespie Illinois 62033 .

      • They grow in Chicago, and as far north as Milwaukee. If you go to Lincoln Park Zoo, they are near the chimpanzee habitat.

    • You may be thinking of the passion fruit wildflower? It looks like a small melon and tastes like citrus. It grows on a vine in TN and is our state wildflower I believe.

  1. Haven’t tasted them since I was a kid. Didn’t like the taste. About the same as a mayapple. Hadn’t thought of them in fifty or sixty years. I can see them on a tree but can’t recall the location. Never forgotten the taste though.

  2. Pickin’ up pawpaw’s put ’em yer pocket
    Pickin’ up pawpaw’s put ’em yer pocket
    Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch

  3. the article does say that generations of knowledge have been lost… so it makes sense that someone doesn’t know the difference between a vine and a tree

  4. All the ones I ate growing up in Clay County, Kentucky came off of a tree…usually not really good, much like persimmons, until after the first frost, then they become sweet and almost melt in your mouth.

    • Raintree nursery and One Green World both have quite a few. The modern cultivated ones are much better than the wild seedlings. Much of the bitterness has been bred out. I grow them North of Seattle. I’ve started about a dozen from seeds. They are easily germinated if you don’t let the seeds dry out before you plant them. Keep the seeds moist and cold for 3 months and then they sprout quickly at about 80 degrees. I sprout them in bags of peat moss and transfer to pots once they have their first little roots. Fun plant to grow.

  5. Back in 1950 When I was a kid in Ross County Ohio (south central) the paw paws were on small trees and I could reach up and pick the fruit. I only ate them when they were rip and getting soft like a banana gets soft. I was never crazy about the taste but I believe the paw paw would sure keep a hungry person alive. BTW, never eat a buckeye.

  6. Yes, paw paws grow on a bush ( that’s what we called them ). Haven’t had one as an adult but ate them when I was a kid.. didn’t like real well but they would keep me from starving. So much of our lands have been cleared off coal mining and lumber. Just times gone by and moving ahead.

  7. They definitely grow on trees. We have a lot of them on our property. We had one old tree that was about 15-20 feet tall so they can definitely get bigger than a bush.

  8. We have 2 paw paw trees in our front garden and we usually get a few fruits each year if we pick them before the critters do! They are definitely great chilled with ice cream. In upstate New York they don’t ripen until October. We got our trees as bare root cuttings from our local Miller Nurserys now owned by Stark. They have made it through several below 0 f winters, too.

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