The Adventures of Indiana Banana in the Perilous Paw Paw Patch

By Kathleen M Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society

pawpaw on treeYes. The paw paw bears the common name, “Indiana banana.” I don’t make up things like that. This is lore!

The Paw Paw’s official name is Asimina triloba. It is a small deciduous tree native to eastern North America, that does, indeed, produce a patch of like-minded paw paws where it finds the right venue of well-drained fertile soil. It is fond of flood plains, and spreads through suckers.
Paw paws may also be propagated by seeds, but it’s a complicated process. The seeds must not be allowed to dry out, and must be scarified (the seed surface roughened with small cuts) and stratified (chilled at a temperature of 41 degrees Fahrenheit for a period between nine weeks and three years). Also, it’s hard to transplant a paw paw without fatally damaging the delicate hairs of the roots. So, it seems best to purchase pot-grown specimens if you want to grow them…and you do, don’t you?

The flower of the paw paw is pretty, but its fragrance is redolent of rotting meat. Some insects are drawn to the smell, but many animals, including deer, appear repelled both by the smell and taste of the flowers and leaves. Indeed, both contain a toxin, acetogenin. One notable exception in the wildlife genre, however, is the zebra swallowtail, Protographium marcellus. That butterfly relies on the paw paw and is seldom found far away from a patch. The green and black caterpillars chew on the leaves, the adults drink the nectar, and the lurking acetogenins not only do them no harm, the toxins may confer protection from predators to this butterfly. Since the caterpillars of the zebra swallowtail enjoy munching on each other, each egg is laid individually some distance from each other on the leaves or trunk of a paw paw tree. A perilous patch, indeed.

pawpaw openThe paw paw produces a large greenish, yellowish fruit that can be eaten raw. The consistency of the fruit is compared to custard, and the taste is described as similar to a banana, a mango, and a pineapple. The name, “paw paw” may be derived from the Spanish word for papaya. The fruit, which ripens in September or October, can weigh up to a pound, but is considered a berry. The large black seeds are easily removed, and for some reason in was a custom to carry a paw paw seed or two in your pocket, probably as a lucky charm.

The paw paw grows wild in 26 states. Why have you never seen vast orchards of this remarkable fruit? Paw paws were grown and enjoyed by both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington (who liked his chilled). But you won’t find them in the grocery store. The truth is that they are difficult to market. They don’t travel well, and begin to ferment soon after picking. The best way to save any amount of paw paw fruit that you might be lucky enough to acquire is to freeze the pulp.

I say, join the adventure and grow your own! We’ll start a quest!