Way Down Yonder in the Paw-Paw Patch
Ever heard of the pawpaw tree? Ever tasted its fruit? Did you even know it had fruit? Though it may not have the name recognition of an apple or a peach tree, pawpaw trees have a long and important history in the United States. In 1541, Hernando de Soto observed Mississippi Valley Native Americans growing pawpaws and eating the fruit. According to scientist Neal Peterson, the Spanish mistakenly named the pawpaw fruit “papaya.” Spanish explorers selected this name because they observed pawpaw fruit to have a similar green skin and orange flesh to a papaya. Overtime, the English language transformed the fruit and tree species name from papaya to pawpaw (Asimina triloba).
According to James A. Little in his 1905 A Treatise on the Pawpaw, pawpaw fruit helped sustain Native Americans and early American settlers in times of harvest failure. Little wrote that pawpaw trees needed little maintenance in order to survive in the wild, unlike apple, pear, or peach trees. Thanks to its resilience, Native Americans and early pioneers enjoyed pawpaw fruit as a dependable source of fiber and nourishment. Even members of the Lewis and Clarke Expedition survived on pawpaw fruit during their long journey west in 1804-1806.
Found between Georgia and Northern Michigan, pawpaws extend across eastern portions of the United States. Unlike the tropical members of the Annonaceae family to which it belongs, pawpaw trees thrive in harsh conditions of snow and ice. Despite this resilience, pawpaws still struggle to reproduce. Scientists believe the tree is ineffective at attracting flies and beetles to pollinate its flowers, thus creating challenges for reproduction.
The pawpaw tree produces a very nutritious and delicious fruit, which is actually a berry. The pawpaw berry is also called a “custard apple” and is said to taste like a mix between a banana and a pear, with a hint of vanilla. The name custard apple derives from the creamy texture of the fruit.
Smithsonian Gardens currently has seventeen pawpaw trees in its Tree Collection. They can be found in the Native Landscape garden at the National Museum of the American Indian, the Butterfly Habitat Garden adjacent to the National Museum of Natural History, and the National Air and Space Museum.
Next time you stop by one of the Smithsonian gardens keep an eye out for this beautiful tree with a deliciously-interesting past.
-Jessica Brode, Archives of American Gardens intern