News release: Pawpaws Anyone?

Tim Baker, MU Extension Horticulture Specialist
102 N. Main, Suite 1, Gallatin, MO 64640

Release Date: September 15, 2016
Headline: Pawpaws Anyone?

If you happen to be out in the woods this fall, you may come across an interesting fruit that resembles a short, stout banana from 2 to 5 inches long.  The skin is initially a light green, turning brown when the fruits are ripe.  Ripe fruits have the consistency of egg custard.  What have you found?  Assuming you have identified it correctly, (and DON'T eat it unless you're sure), you have found a pawpaw.

The pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is a member of the custard apple family (Annonaceae).  Most members of this family are found in the tropics, but the pawpaw is well adapted to much of the United States.  It is also known as the Missouri banana, Nebraska banana, winter banana, or custard-apple.  It usually grows as a large shrub or small tree.  Fruits normally ripen in September or October, depending on the part of the country where it is growing.

Like many wild edibles, you may or may not like the flavor.  And some people have noted allergic reactions to pawpaws, so proceed with caution.  The custard-like pulp surrounds several large, dark brown, flat seeds.  While fresh, ripe, soft to the touch pawpaws are eaten raw, some prefer to use them in cooked foods such as puddings, ice cream or other desserts.

In their natural habitat, pawpaws are found along river bottoms or wooded slopes near streams, usually in the shade of other trees.  They can be grown successfully as a landscape plant.  Pawpaws can grow in shade, but also grow well in full sunlight.  If you decide to grow them, keep in mind that they will reach a height of from 15 to 20 feet.  They could become larger. The leaves are oblong, deep green and smooth margined, from 6 to 12 inches long. They remain on the plant until late fall, when they finally turn yellow and fall.  The flowers are a deep purple-red color, but are not especially showy.

Pawpaws do not transplant well as large plants.  If you order them from a nursery, try to get smaller plants.  You can also start them from seed.  Just plant the seeds in the site where you want them to grow, in the fall.  But it may take several seasons for them to get started, because the seed coat must be decomposed by microorganisms in the soil before they can germinate.  Another caution: left undisturbed, pawpaws will form a grove or thicket of plants.  This is because they propagate from root suckers.  So if you don't want them to spread, you will need to keep the new plants mowed down. Grafted cultivars planted in full sun yield more and larger fruits than those grown in the shade.

You will need several plants for cross pollination.  Even then, pollination by insects is sometimes a problem.  The flowers are pollinated by flies and beetles attracted to rank smells and are not attractive to bees. 

Will pawpaws ever catch on as a popular fruit?  Some people hope so.   Pawpaw cultivar research has been conducted at several universities for years. Our MU Center for Agroforestry has research plantings at several Missouri locations. This includes both named cultivars and selections from the wild. Both individuals (Neal Peterson) and groups (e.g, the North American Fruit Explorers, Kentucky State University), have found better strains in the wild, and cultivated them as superior selections.  Who knows? Perhaps we will eventually see commercial pawpaw operations come of efforts such as this.