Meet the poor man’s banana, a sensuous standout in local edible landscaping.
🌳Year of Trees🌳continues with Awbury Arboretum’s fascinating pick for May, the Pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba). Small and short-trunked with broad, thick leaves, this deciduous wonder graces our continent from the Canadian border all the way down to sunny Florida, stretching its branches as far west as Nebraska. While its tropical relatives, like custard apple, soursop, and cherimoya steal the limelight, the pawpaw holds its ground with unique qualities that make it truly extraordinary.
The largest edible fruit native to North America looks like a green potato but on the inside it’s got a creamy, custardy texture with flavors of banana, mango, citrus, and vanilla. There’s also a subtle funky-floral aftertaste, a little reminiscent of unfiltered wheat beer. 😋 This luxurious treat is bursting with vitamin C, potassium, and antioxidants – a natural powerhouse treasured by Native Americans for centuries. They harnessed its healing properties to combat fevers, dysentery, and pesky parasitic infections.
Pawpaw’s pollination habits are positively goth. Unlike most trees that rely on the busy buzzing of bees, the pawpaw beckons flies, beetles and select species of swallowtail butterflies to do the job. Its six purple petals emit a delicate fragrance reminiscent of decaying meat. Gross! But irresistible to the pawpaw’s targeted pollinators, who find the scent enticing because they crave the salts and amino acids found in rotting flesh. 🪰🪲🦋🤢
In addition to being an expert seducer, the pawpaw is also a real roamer when it comes to reproduction. The pawpaw is self-incompatible, meaning its flowers require pollination from a genetically different tree — not an easy feat when whole groves tend to be related. Talk about a challenging love life, finding strangers to hook up with when you’re literally rooted to one spot.
Speaking of roots, the pawpaw’s history goes way, way back to the era of giant sloths and woolly mammoths, when colossal herbivores roamed the land. This clever survivor grew sweet, massive fruit with seeds that could survive a animal’s digestive system. Thus, with every poop, its legacy spread far and wide! 💩🌱🙌 When the megafauna vanished, new species stepped up to keep the pawpaw propagating: foxes, squirrels, raccoons, and an array of feathered friends.
❓What’s with the name?❓
It probably comes from the Arawak word for papaya — “papáya” – which indigenous people in the Caribbean evidently introduced to the first Spanish invaders. When later conquistadors encountered the pawpaw tree in North America, they mistook it for papaya (the two fruits do look remarkably similar). Regardless of its etymology, the tree’s scientific name, Asimina triloba, stems from the Powhatan word “Assimina,” transcribed by a Jamestown settler in 1612 as, inexplicably, “wheat plum.”
Learn more in author and expert Dan Sardaro’s original article on Awbury’s website, which includes directions to sixteen acres of mature “Food Forest,” where you’ll find a thriving grove of pawpaw, along with other fruits, nuts, herbal remedies, and more. 🌳🍏🍒🌰🌿 All welcome, free to visit.
Follow Dan’s excellent blog with a whole calendar of special “tree-mendous” events throughout the year!
Dan is a novice birder and author of Awbury’s 2022 “Year of Birds” series, 2018 series on Pollinators, “From Wasps to Wind” and 2019’s series on natural fibers. (He is also a former Awbury Arboretum intern.) Read last month’s article here.
The Arboreum’s beautiful grounds are open FREE to the public from dawn to dusk, 365 days a year. Maps available for self-guided tours at the main office, located in the Francis Cope House (Tues – Thurs, 10AM – 4PM or by appointment). Dogs on leash welcome — except not in the garden beds, please. Also available as a unique event venue. Learn more at awbury.org; follow on Facebook and Instagram.