Assimina triloba

by John Brouwer

Pawpaw is a native fruit tree related to the tropical custard apple and soursop. It is the only member of that family adapted to temperate climates. Southern Ontario is the extreme northern limit of its range. It is assumed that natives were responsible for spreading pawpaw's range into southern Ontario as they brought seed into the area in order grow their own fruit.

Pawpaw is a small understory tree having a height of 25 feet. It tends to grow in colonies as new trees often grow from suckers. Pawpaw fruit is cylindrical about six inches long weighing up to ¾ pound. It is the largest native Carolinian fruit. The cylindrical shape has given rise to a host of common names all related to banana; poor man's banana, hoosier banana, prairie banana, etc. Pawpaw fruit has a flavour similar to banana and mango.

Pawpaw is critical to the zebra swallowtail butterfly as it is the only host for its larval stage.
Historically pawpaw fruit was popular throughout the Carolinian zone.

Earliest documentation of pawpaw dates to De Soto's 1540 expedition in which he described pawpaw cultivation in the Mississippi valley. Lewis and Clark credited pawpaw with saving them from starvation in 1810. More recently the late 19th century produced the folk song, "Way Down Yonder in the Pawpaw Patch" and this was picked up by Disney in "Junglebook".

With the advent of industrial farming pawpaw became marginalized as the fruit has no shelf life preventing it from being packaged and shipped.

It is precisely this short shelf life which has made pawpaw the darling of the regional slow food movement. There are numerous current food articles extolling the virtues of pawpaw as an essential component of regional cuisine. Last November MacLean's Magazine featured an article on Pawpaw oriented to Toronto foodies. Their solution to short shelf life is to plant in a tree in your yard so you can pick the fruit fresh off the tree – as part of edible landscape gardening. And if you have too much fruit, use home canning and drying to store your bounty. Sounds like the advice my mother gave me and she didn't need a host of chiefs and food writers to inform her about preserving food!

In various parts of the Carolinian zone efforts are underway to commercialize pawpaw as an orchard tree since it is one of the most adapted regional fruits.

But pawpaw's most value may come from its branches rather than the fruit. In the spring pawpaw twigs contain high concentrations of acetogenins, a class of cancer drugs. And it is this regional Carolinian species of pawpaw which has the most acetogenins. Acetogenin moderates the energy production of cells, apparently reducing the rapid multiplication of cancer cells.

Pawpaw fruit pulp is being used as a fat substitute in baked goods similarly to the use of apple sauce. Substituting pawpaw pulp for half the fat in muffins provides the same texture without the fat calories.

There are no pawpaws in the co-op and I know of no trees in the region. We should get a pawpaw specimen. Evidently there is a nursery in the Niagara area which has some pawpaw seedlings. If people will be in that area sometime, maybe they could pick up a couple of pawpaw seedlings.

January 2010