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The Pawpaw: A Southern Delicacy

I have, on several occasions, heard of a mysterious fruit called a pawpaw. On each occasion it was referred to as a Southern delicacy: a fruit tree whose papaya-shaped fruit have the consistency of custard inside a tough, thin-skinned pod and a vanilla-banana flavor.

 

Benny LaFleur holds two pawpaw fruit from his Del Rio farm.

One of my gardening mentors, Benny La Fleur, recently provided me with a pawpaw fruit to try. He grows them on his farm, along with many other wonderful things. As I had heard, it looks tropical: a greenish-yellow pod about 5 inches long with brown flecks. When cut open I found a soft fruit containing many large (an inch or more in length), brown, bean-like seeds. To me, the fruit tasted much like a banana crème pie, and was a welcome complement to our breakfast.

Curious, I decided to poke around and see what more I could learn about this strange tropical fruit.

First off, the pawpaw is not tropical, nor is it limited to the south. It is distantly related to the Cherimoya (Annona cherimola), which is an important food crop in Indonesia, but the pawpaw has been a native fruit tree of North America since long before the white man came here. Lewis and Clark wrote in their journals that they were quite fond of the pawpaw. At one point during their expedition in 1806, they relied on pawpaws when other provisions ran low.

To further confuse the issue, in Australia the papaya is commonly referred to as the pawpaw, but the two fruits are entirely different.

It is late in the season, and windy, rainy weather has knocked all the fruit from this pawpaw tree on Benny’s farm. Photo by Sara Shea.

These trees are native to eastern North America from Florida to southernmost Canada and from New York to East Texas and Nebraska. While some have been successfully grown in California, they are not native to that area, partly because they do require a minimum of 400 hours of winter chill in order to produce fruit.

The pawpaw is now rarely seen and hardly known by recent generations, but was a household name for the pre-baby-boomer generations. Many old and now forgotten folk songs were sung praising the pawpaw. Being the largest edible fruit native to America, the pawpaw is worth singing about and has found some resurgent interest in the past 20 years.