|Common Pawpaw in fruit|
Pawpaw (Asimina) is a genus of small clustered trees with large leaves and fruit, native to North America. The genus includes the largest edible fruit indigenous to the continent. They are understory trees found in well drained deep fertile bottomland and hilly upland habitat. Pawpaw is in the same family (Annonaceae) as the custard-apple, cherimoya, sweetsop, ylang-ylang and soursop, and it is the only member of that family not confined to the tropics.
The name, also spelled paw paw, paw-paw, and papaw, probably derives from the Spanish papaya, perhaps because of the superficial similarity of their fruit. Pawpaw has numerous other common names, often very local, such as prairie banana, Indiana (Hoosier) banana, West Virginia banana, Kansas banana, Kentucky banana, Michigan banana, Missouri Banana, the poor man's banana, and Ozark banana.
The leaves are alternate, simple ovate, entire, 20–35 cm long and 10–15 cm broad.
The fetid flowers are produced singly or in clusters of up to eight together; they are large, 4–6 cm across, perfect, with six sepals and petals (three large outer petals, three smaller inner petals). The petal color varies from white to purple or red-brown.
The fruit is a large edible berry, 5–16 cm long and 3–7 cm broad, weighing from 20–500 g, with numerous seeds; it is green when unripe, maturing to yellow or brown. It has a flavor somewhat similar to both banana and mango, varying significantly by cultivar, and has more protein than most fruits.
The fruits are quite popular, but the shelf life of the ripe fruit is almost non-existent, for it soon ripens to the point of fermentation. Those who wish to preserve the fruit for the future do so by dehydration, making it into jams or jellies, or pressure canning by using the numerical values for bananas. In southern West Virginia pawpaws are made into a native version of banana nut cake or fruit cake, and baked inside canning jars, the lids heat-sealed to keep the food for at least a year.
Pawpaw flowers are insect-pollinated, but fruit production is limited since few if any pollinators are attracted to the flower's faint, or sometimes non-existent scent. Those insects that are attracted are often scavenging fruit flies, carrion flies and beetles.
Growers of pawpaws sometimes place rotting fruit or roadkill meat near the trees at bloom time to increase the number of pollinators. Asimina triloba is the only larval host of the Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly.
The pawpaw is native to shady, rich bottom lands, where it often forms a dense undergrowth in the forest. Where it dominates a tract it appears as a thicket of small slender trees, whose great leaves are borne so close together at the ends of the branches, and which cover each other so symmetrically, that the effect is to give a peculiar imbricated appearance to the tree.
Although it is a delicious and nutritious fruit, it has never been cultivated on the scale of apples and peaches, primarily because only frozen fruit will store or ship well. It is also difficult to transplant because of fragile hairy root tentacles that tend to break off unless a cluster of moist soil is retained on the root mass. Cultivars are propagated by chip budding or whip grafting.
In recent years the pawpaw has attracted renewed interest, particularly among organic growers, as a native fruit which has few to no pests, and which therefore requires no pesticide use for cultivation. The shipping and storage problem has largely been addressed by freezing. Among backyard gardeners it also is gaining in popularity because of the appeal of fresh fruit and because it is relatively low maintenance once planted. The pulp is used primarily in baked dessert recipes and for juicing fresh pawpaw drink or drink mixtures (pawpaw, pineapple, banana, lime, lemon and orange tea mix). The pulp can also be made into a country wine. In many recipes calling for bananas, pawpaw can be used with volumetric equivalency.
Because of difficult pollination, some may believe the flowers are self-incompatible. Cross pollination of at least two different varieties of the plant is recommended. The flowers produce an odor similar to that of rotting meat to attract blowflies or carrion beetles for cross pollination. Lack of pollination is the most common cause of poor fruiting, and growers resort to hand pollination, spraying fish emulsion, or to hanging chicken necks or other meat to attract pollinators.
The leaves, twigs, and bark of the tree also contain natural insecticides known as acetogenins, which can be used to make an organic pesticide. Pawpaw fruit may be eaten by foxes, possums, squirrels and raccoons. However, pawpaw leaves and twigs are seldom bothered by rabbits or deer. Bears particularly enjoy the fruit.
This colonial tree has a strong tendency to form colonial thickets if left unchecked. It is ideal for creating a swift-growing habitat particularly in areas where frequent flooding can threaten erosion. The root systems are capable of holding streambanks steady, and grow well even in cold hollows with little exposure to winter sunlight.
The earliest documentation of pawpaws is in the 1541 report of the de Soto expedition, who found Native Americans cultivating it east of the Mississippi River. The Lewis and Clark Expedition depended and sometimes subsisted on pawpaws during their travels. Chilled pawpaw fruit was a favorite dessert of George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson was certainly familiar with it as he planted it at Monticello. The Ohio Pawpaw Growers' Association lobbied for the pawpaw to be the Ohio state native fruit in 2006; this was made official in 2009.
Growers hope that potential medical use will eventually lead to increased market demand from the pharmaceutical industry.
The seeds also have insecticidal properties. Some Native American tribes dry and powder them and apply the powder to children's heads to control lice; specialized shampoos now use compounds from pawpaw for the same purpose.
While it is not meant to replace conventional cancer treatments, pawpaw extract is currently investigated as an alternative cancer treatment alongside conventional and approved treatments, partly due to inhibition of ATP production by acetogenins. Because acetogenin contents vary widely from tree to tree, only standardized extracts are acceptable.