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Pawpaw: The Midwest Banana?
Although the pawpaw is native to the eastern and central United States, it is a surprisingly well-kept secret. Those who do know this fruit are not likely to forget its delightful aroma and flavor. The pawpaw has been called the Hoosier Banana, but probably only by Hoosiers themselves. The same plant is also known as the Michigan Banana, Kentucky Banana and other regional favorites. Botanically, the plant is known as Asimina triloba. The tree can be found growing in low woods in much of the Midwest, with the heart of its territory in the Ohio Valley.
Historically, Native Americans used strands of the inner bark of pawpaws for making fabric and netting. A medicinal extract also was harvested from the bark. More recent studies have looked at both anti-cancer and pesticide properties of pawpaw extracts.
You may have guessed by now that the fruit does have a flavor somewhat like a banana, although others have described the taste as similar to mango. The fruits are greenish-yellow berries, which turn brownish-black when fully ripe. Each fruit is about 2-5 inches long and can weigh up to 8 ounces. The berries are borne in clusters that can have as many as seven fruits.
Some backyard growers complain of poor fruit set on their pawpaws. There is still some controversy over which insects are the primary pollinators. Some believe honeybees to be the workers. Others declare that carrion flies are responsible, while still others insist that it is a species of beetle. The flowers do have a very rank odor, so flies and beetles are the more likely bets.
Additionally, self-pollination does not occur within a flower so other flowers must be nearby to provide a pollen source. Planting several trees should help provide sufficient flowers. Where possible, hand pollination, using a small artist's brush to carry the pollen from one flower to another, may be of some help.
Harvest pawpaw when the fruit yields slightly to gentle thumb pressure, usually in late September or October. The fruits have excellent flavor when eaten fresh, but they bruise easily and do not keep well, even when refrigerated. Fortunately, pawpaws can be dried or frozen for later use or processed into ice cream, cakes, cookies, breads and pastries.
The pawpaw tree usually grows up to about 20 feet, although it can grow taller in a favorable location. A sunny but moist, fertile, slightly acid location is best. The leaves have a yellow fall color that can be brilliant on some specimens. The pawpaw has a reputation for being very difficult to transplant but it is available from many mail-order nurseries, including the following Midwestern sources.
Midwestern Mail-order Sources for Pawpaw trees
Nolin River Nut Tree Nursery
Oikos Tree Crops