The Pawpaw: America’s Secret Native Fruit

Ozark banana. Quaker delight. Asimoya. Hillbilly mango. This relatively obscure fruit goes by many regional names, pawpaw being the most common.

The humble pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is an unassuming little yellow-green fruit no bigger than your fist, yet it played a big role in the expansion of our country. Have you ever heard of Lewis and Clark? Well, you might not have if the Native Americans had not taught these intrepid explorers about America’s secret native fruit.

On the way back home loaded down with maps, notes, specimens, and information, the Lewis and Clark expedition ran out of food. Fortunately, it just happened to be pawpaw season and the crew subsisted on them until they could find other means of feeding themselves. Apparently, the explorers noted that the crew members really enjoyed them, and would have happily continued eating them even if they hadn’t found something else.

Thomas Jefferson planted the simple pawpaw at Monticello. Houses and communities were built near pawpaw groves, as they were a ready source of “sweets” before the settlers’ own trees came into fruit. Today in such states as Illinois, Michigan, and Indiana, there are communities named Pawpaw harkening back to this fact. Even George Washington supposedly liked chilled pawpaw for dessert. Whether he did or not is up for debate, but it is clear that for the early Americans, the pawpaw held a special place in their hearts as well as their larders.

So what happened? Why did we forget about this little pale-green powerhouse that graced the tables of presidents and paupers alike? Well, just like its cousin, the banana, both have a relatively short shelf life and it’s only around for a few short weeks each year.

And that time is now.

For a few short weeks at the end of September and the beginning of October, the pawpaws are ripe and ready to go. They often fall off the trees onto the ground where they are happily devoured by man and beast alike. In fact, this little fruit even has its own little traditional folk song. It goes like this:

Where, oh where is dear little Nellie?

Where, oh where is dear little Nellie?

Where, oh where is dear little Nellie?

Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch.

Pickin’ up pawpaws, puttin’ ’em in your pocket,

Pickin’ up pawpaws, puttin’ ’em in your pocket,

Pickin’ up pawpaws, puttin’ ’em in your pocket,

Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch.

As the song says, pawpaws often grow in patches. These patches are most likely the same plant as they tend to grow as clones of one another (a fact I can attest to as I have to thin out our pawpaw patch regularly). But locating a pawpaw patch is rather easy if you know what you’re looking for, and you’re hungry enough.

Pawpaw patch
Pawpaw patch.

The plant itself is very easy to identify because nothing else really looks like it. It is a tropical plant that grows from sea to shining sea, even in the harsh northern woods of Maine and Michigan, where it survives cold winters that would make your prized houseplants blacken and die. It has large, dark green, simple oblate leaves 6-12 inches in length and 3-5 inches wide. The leaves, when crushed, have a distinct tomato/pepper smell. These leaves alternate on the branch, which ends in a soft “naked bud” that noted wildlife painter and naturalist, John Audubon, used as a paintbrush.

Pawpaw flowers.

The trees themselves are relatively small—an understory tree rarely exceeding 20 feet. The trees, to me, always look like they are begging for a good drink and often have a “droopy” appearance. However, they probably don’t need a drink as it is just bowing under the weight of the large and numerous leaves. In the spring, the trees produce half-dollar-sized brown-purple three-petaled flowers that, well, stink, so that they appeal to flies and beetles as pollinators.

Pawpaw inside.

After the trees are pollinated, little green pawpaws start to appear in clusters like bananas. They continue to grow until they are ripe in early fall. The fruit, to me, tastes like an overripe banana. Others say a mix between a mango and banana, but they all agree that the pawpaw is very sweet. The best way to eat them is right away. Pick them up off the ground and tear into them. There is nothing clean about eating a pawpaw. It is a pleasure to suck the pulp off the rectangular seeds and spit them like watermelon seeds. Prepare to have the pulp stick to your fingers and run down your shirt. It’s part of the fun!

You can keep pawpaws for a few days at room temperature, but if you plan on keeping them for any length of time you need to do something to preserve them. Native Americans would dry the pulp in cakes for storage. But peeling and freezing is probably the best option for this day and age. You can use the pulp as you would a banana in most recipes. I’ve had pawpaw bread that tasted slightly sweeter than regular old banana bread, but feel free to get creative. Pawpaw pudding instead of banana? How about pawpaw custard pie for Thanksgiving? You can also turn it into wine or beer; both are traditional ways to preserve your pawpaw harvest.


In my opinion, the best way to find pawpaws is out in the woods, but if that isn’t an option for you, try a local farmers’ market, or perhaps you can buy frozen pulp online and have it shipped to you. Be prepared, though, to pay quite a bit as there aren’t many places that sell pawpaws, mostly because of their short season and shorter shelf life. The next best thing to finding pawpaws in the wild is growing your own, and there are several cultivars out there that have been selected for better taste, yields, health, etc. Perhaps you can corner the market in a few years by picking up the pawpaws in your own pawpaw patch and put some jingle in your pocket.

Indiana Banana. American custard apple. Banango.

Whatever you want to call it, give this tasty native fruit a try before they are gone for another year.

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