Many hikers in the Ozarks are puzzled to see extensive thickets of a kind of shrub with big oblong and vibrantly green leaves that look like they could be found along some tropical jungle trail. This is the pawpaw, a small fruiting tree that was once a useful food resource for Ozark and Appalachian settlers as related by Andrew Moore in his book Pawpaw. I concur with Moore’s observation that pawpaw fruit are not very common in our forests today and wonder how pawpaw could have been a significant part of rural folks’ diet in years gone by. But there are some back-to-the-land types who manage to forage for pawpaw fruit to sell at local farmers markets in Ohio and West Virginia. Part of the story may relate to differences in forest conditions or land use, and how those conditions affect pawpaw pollination.
The tree blooms in early April with nickel-sized maroon flowers that attract flies rather than bees. The flower bears a fetid odor that would attract flies while the color resembles that of decaying flesh. Because extensive thickets of pawpaw develop by underground runners, they are essentially giant clones. Pawpaw flowers do not self-pollenate very well and pollen from other clones at some distance is required to produce fruit. Recently established pawpaw orchard operations even collect roadkill for use in attracting pollinators to their groves. It may be that pawpaw fruit are relatively uncommon in many places because forests have been expanding on abandoned land, and the wide-ranging pawpaw thickets we see may be extensive clones that expanded from a few initial outliers, creating difficulty when it comes to cross-pollination between genetically distinct clones.
The natural range of pawpaw extends from east Texas to southern Ontario and represents a tree from a large tropical family that has managed to thrive in temperate climate. Asimina triloba is a member of a widespread family that includes such tropical fruits as the soursop and the cherimoya that have followed Hispanic immigrants to our temperate produce markets. The one other common member of this family in the US is the pond apple (Annona glabra), a native shrub I got to know while hiking in the Florida Everglades. The name pawpaw was apparently adopted by early Virginia colonists who confused a local fruit having seed-filled pulp with the tropical pulp and seed-filled papaya described by travelers from the Caribbean. When eaten, the wild fruit is described as a creamy custard with a banana-mango flavor. Moore describes how “Johnny Pawpawseed” pioneer Neil Peterson painstakingly developed commercially valuable pawpaw varieties as a hobby outside of his regular FDA research job. His cultivars were twice the size of wild fruit, had especially savory taste, and were rounder to enhance the relative amount of pulp around the central seeds. Before long, the University of Kentucky had begun a pawpaw cultivation program as an effort to find useful new crops as tobacco continued to disappear from the farming industry. You can now go online to find specialty nurseries that will ship you grafted saplings for your own pawpaw orchard. Meanwhile, annual pawpaw festivals have now become great attractions in Ohio and North Carolina.
Pawpaw orchards have relatively few insect pests or other diseases, and the trees are not very palatable to deer. It is, however, host to caterpillars that mature into zebra swallowtail butterflies. The main hazard for growers is freeze damage during the early spring flowering season. The remaining constraint on the commercial pawpaw production industry is the need for equipment to process fruit to extract pulp from rind and seeds to reach an expanding market for fruit products to be used in a variety of pies, cakes, puddings and other treats.
You can even sample pawpaw beer at specialty brewpubs, most often at local pawpaw festivals in the Appalachian region. There is also another dwarf variety of Asimina in Florida with showy flowers that has the potential to be bred with Arkansas pawpaw to give ornamental landscape trees. I saw dwarf pawpaw (A parviflora) in bloom while hiking in the sandy pine forests of central Florida and was amazed to see knee-high shrubs with outsized flowers framed by lacy pink petals. You can see how much potential there is for improvement there.
Now that you know about the tasty fruit of our common Ozark shrub, how can you go about obtaining a sample? There are several real obstacles in the way. First, just beating raccoons and other wildlife to the nutritious fruit. Then the problem that pawpaw has a very narrow window of palatability. The fruit is only edible when ripe, and then falls from the tree and rots very quickly. Veteran pawpaw harvesters shake trees to see if ripe fruit is ready to fall, or gently press thumb and forefinger into the fruit to test for ripeness. Then there is the pollination issue. Having lots of pawpaw shrubs in a location does not guarantee a harvest because they all may be essentially the same plant in one big clone. You have to look for fruiting plants to figure out where natural cross-pollination is reliably occurring. Those hardy souls who collect the wild fruit have probably found by trial and error the location of groves that consistently bear good fruit crops.
You can easily see pawpaw for yourself at many convenient locations in northwest Arkansas. One of the most accessible locations is where a clone of mature pawpaw stems up to fifteen feet tall lean over the paved walkway at Compton Gardens in Bentonville. Another easy access site for pawpaw viewing is the Sinking Stream Trail at Hobbs State Park. Ripening pawpaw fruit were even hanging over the trail when I visited last summer. The shrub or small tree is found almost everywhere on the Ozark Highlands Trail where there are relatively moist and shaded conditions in older growth forest. One of the most impressive jungles of pawpaw I have seen is along the upper reaches of the Shores Lake Trail around White Rock State Park where the demise of the red oak overstory by oak borer attack has opened the canopy to allow luxurious expansion of the pawpaw clones in the understory. Pawpaw viewing is as good an excuse as any for hiking that scenic trail.
Reference: Pawpaw – In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit, Andrew Moore, 2015, Chelsea Green Publishing, 295 p.