Part Six of the Series
Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner
Remember the elementary school song, “Picking up Pawpaws in a Pawpaw Patch?” The pawpaw (Asimina triloba) was one of the favorite fruits of indigenous peoples in Eastern North America. Its natural range extended from southern Ontario to northern Florida. Ancestors of the Uchee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creeks and Catawba selectively cultivated pawpaw orchards (aka patches) near their towns. Many other tribes protected wild patches in the woods by clearing away encroaching vegetation.
Asimina triloba, the American papaw, pawpaw, paw paw, or paw-paw, among many regional names, is a small deciduous tree native to the eastern United States and Canada, producing a large, yellowish-green to brown fruit. It belongs to the genus Asimina in the same plant family (the Annonaceae) as the custard-apple, cherimoya, sweetsop, ylang-ylang, and soursop.
The pawpaw is a patch-forming (clonal) understory tree found in well-drained, deep, fertile bottomland and hilly upland habitat, with large, simple leaves. Pawpaw fruits are the largest edible fruit indigenous to the United States. Pawpaw fruits have a sweet, custard-like flavor somewhat similar to banana, mango, and pineapple, and are commonly eaten raw, but are also used to make ice cream and baked desserts. The bark, leaves, and fruit contain the insecticidal neurotoxin, annonacin. Native Americans used the fiber of the pawpaw tree to weave ropes and nets.
Pawpaw in Southeastern Native American languages
Uchee = Arko, Apalchete Creek = Arko, Itsate Creek= Orko, Muskogee Creek= alko, Choctaw = ombó, Chickasaw – takola fala upi, Cherokee = disunki, Koasate = ombó, Shawnee = ha’simini (The biological name for Pawpaw tree is derived from the Shawnee name.)
Disappearance of pawpaw patches
Both pawpaws and that other Native American favorite, persimmons, were also popular with Europeans and Africans, who settled in North America. However, for unknown reasons, during the middle-1800s the planter elite in the South and urban elite in the North came to consider them to be associated with commoners. Agricultural scientists failed to develop the dozens of pawpaw varieties into larger fruits with traits more suitable to largescale cultivation. This was not the case with other Southeastern indigenous crops such as strawberries, grapes, blackberries, raspberries, beans, squash, pumpkins and corn. Both the Concord and Catawba grape were developed from wild grapes in the Southeast!
Because of the lack of human propagation and the abandonment of much farmland in the Southeast during and after the Great Depression, pawpaws became extremely rare by the late 20th century, but are making a comeback. In fact, the State of Kentucky has established an experimental farm and agricultural labs in order to develop commercial varieties for international marketing. The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and the Catawba Nation of South Carolina and North Carolina have initiated major pawpaw cultivation and experimentation programs in order to encourage Native Americans to grow the delicious fruit.
The ancestors of the pawpaw in North America, prior to the ice ages, during the last Ice Age and lasting until roughly 10,000 years ago, were propagated by super-sized, herbivore mammals until these animals became extinct during the Quaternary extinction event. After the arrival of humans and the subsequent extinction of megafauna, the natural range of the pawpaw extended northward into former tundra, but also moved eastward as the West became drier.
The earliest documented mention of pawpaws is when the Hernando de Soto Expedition was staying at the great Proto-Creek town of Kaushe (Coosa) in Northwest Georgia. The farmers of this town were raising pawpaws, three types of plums, indigenous (Biltmore) apples, persimmons and hickory nuts in large orchards. The Lewis and Clark Expedition consumed pawpaws during the eastern portion of their travels. Thomas Jefferson planted pawpaw trees at Monticello, his home in Virginia. Legend has it that chilled pawpaw fruit was a favorite dessert of George Washington.
The main obstacle to cultivation today is the dependence on pawpaw flowers for several types of flies, associated with human habitations, for fertilization. In particular, maggot flies are attracted to the foul-smelling blooms. Thus, tree stocks that may produce bounteous crops of fruit in a back yard or near a farm house, may produce minimal crops in large orchards.
The tree commonly grows in floodplains and shady, rich bottomlands, where it often forms a dense, clonally spreading undergrowth in the forest, often appearing as a patch or thicket of individual, small, slender trees. Pawpaws are not the first to colonize a disturbed site (arriving roughly four years after a clearcut), but may become dominant and slow the establishment of oaks and hickories. Although shade-tolerant, pawpaws do not persist in undisturbed old growth forest.
Pawpaws spread locally primarily by root suckers; sexual reproduction by seed does also occur, but at a fairly low rate. ″ Pawpaw flowers are insect-pollinated, but fruit production is sometimes limited as few pollinators are attracted to the flower’s faint, or sometimes nonexistent scent. The flowers produce an odor similar to that of rotting meat to attract blowflies or carrion beetles for cross-pollination. Other insects that are attracted to pawpaw flowers include scavenging fruit flies, carrion flies, and beetles. Because of irregular fruit production, some believe pawpaw plants are self-incompatible, requiring cross-pollination between trees of different clones (patches).
If you would like to grow pawpaw trees, the following educational video will answer many of your questions.