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Facts

Botany of Pawpaw

  • The scientific name is Asimina triloba (L.) Dunal.
  • The pawpaw belongs to the Annonaceae, the Custard Apple family, a large family of trees, shrubs and lianas that are widespread throughout the Old and New World tropics.
  • Some of the finest fruits in the world belong to the tropical Annonaceae: namely cherimoya, guanabana (also called soursop), sweetsop, and custard apple.
  • The genus Asimina is endemic to the temperate deciduous forests of eastern North America, and contains seven other species besides A. triloba.
  • A. triloba is a wholly temperate-climate species, the northernmost ranging and hardiest of the Asimina, which makes it unique among the Annonaceae.
  • A. triloba is the largest edible native fruit of North America. The other Asimina do not have fruit as large or as delicious.
  • A. triloba is almost the last tree to leaf out in spring, a trait reflecting its tropical origins. Although the young leaves often appear chlorotic, this is only temporary.

History and Folklore

  • Pawpaws and nuts fed the Lewis & Clark expedition on their return trip in the fall of 1810 when in western Missouri their rations ran low and no game was to be found.
  • James A. Little wrote (1905) "We can never realize what a great blessing the pawpaw was to the first settlers while they were clearing the great natural forest and preparing to build cabins. Planting fruit trees was rather an experiment for a number of years. The pawpaw and a few other wild fruits of less value, were all their dependence so far as fruit was concerned. Well do I remember sixty or more years ago my father would take his gun and basket and go to the woods and return in the evening loaded with pawpaws, young squirrel, and sometimes mushrooms of which he was very fond. But there will never be a recurrence of those days which were the happiest of my life."
  • The folk song Way Down Yonder in the Paw Paw Patch celebrates unselfconsciously the prominence of the pawpaw in the lives of pioneers who settled the valleys of the Southern Appalachian Mountains and the greater Ohio River territory.
  • Many places in the US were named after pawpaw: Paw Paw, WV; Paw Paw, MI; Paw Paw, KY; Paw Paw, OK, to name a few; and some townships in Illinois and Ohio and Indiana.
Painting of cuckoos in a pawpaw tree

Nutritional Value

  • Pawpaw has a high nutritional value.
  • The water content is relatively low, 75%, comparable to banana. Most fruits have water content of 85%.
  • Pawpaw's nutritional value exceeds that of apples, peaches and grapes in vitamins, minerals, amino acids and calories. (See table at Kentucky State University website.)
  • Antioxidants (flavonoids, etc.) are probably present in the fruit but their quality and quantity have not been studied.
  • The pawpaw tree contains many bioactive compounds that may be either beneficial or toxic in the human diet, depending on the amount consumed by the individual, and on an individual's sensitivity.
  • The bark and seeds are high in acetogenins, potent compounds that are poisonous to most insect feeders and many fungi, and that are also potent anticarcinogens. The leading researcher on acetogenins has been Dr. J. L. McLaughlin, formerly of Purdue University.

Pawpaw Recipes

  • Many of the most distinctive components of pawpaw flavor are highly volatile. Therefore, the best pawpaw recipes are those involving little or no heating. Here are a few.
    • Pawpaw bread
    • Pawpaw chiffon pie
    • Pawpaw muffins
    • Pawpaw ice cream

Research

  • A great deal of research has been and is being conducted by Kentucky State University where there is a full time pawpaw research program under the direction of Dr. Kirk Pomper.
    • Their site contains an excellent bibliography
    • Areas of research at KSU and other institutions include:
      • breeding
      • gemination
      • propagation
      • genetic analysis
      • fruit postharvest physiology
      • orchard management
      • culinary uses
  • Regional variety trials sites
    • At 12 sites around the country 28 pawpaw cultivars are being tested. We are still years away from having enough data from these trials to reach conclusions about what the best cultivars are for different areas of the country. For a map of the sites click here. The sites are shown as blue dots; the pawpaw native range is shown in red.

Cultural Adivce

For questions regarding pawpaws, email: neal@petersonpawpaws.com