History of the Paw Paw

Almost 200 years ago, when President Andrew Jackson signed the Removal Act of 1830 that displaced tens of thousands of Native Americans from their ancestral lands, the Shawnee were forced to uproot their home in Appalachia and move to the plains of Oklahoma. Apart from the thousands who lost their lives in that arduous journey, many things were lost in that passage, including surrendering the natural environment that nurtured them.

Sense of place is woven into the fabric of many cultures – as such, losing it can be disastrous to one’s own identity. But while much was stripped away, there were some who decided to bring a part of their history with them in the form of the Pawpaw tree.
What may be a rather silly-sounding species, the Pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba) is a unique staple of eastern Northern America. The only local member of a mainly tropical plant family Annonaceae, this tree bears edible fruit that is the largest in North America. Its colloquial names include prairie banana, custard apple, or hillbilly mango, and it even has a traditional American song named after it called “Way
Down Yonder In The Paw-Paw Patch.”

The truth is that this tree has been at the center of Appalachian culture for hundreds of years. Uses for the fruit have varied but beginning with the first peoples who settled in the eastern part of the continent, it has always served as a reliable source of food and medicine. So when tribes like the Shawnee were told to leave their life behind, they chose to take the Pawpaw with them. It’s the reason why there are so many Pawpaw groves along the notorious Trail of Tears (the network of routes used to transport Indigenous people westward). When the Shawnee arrived in Oklahoma, they planted the saplings they carried. Thus, living memory took root in this new, foreign soil.

Let’s talk about identification.

The Pawpaw is a smaller species compared to most species, and oftentimes mature individuals are absent from dense forests where different species compete for sunlight and other resources. You will mostly find Pawpaw saplings in the forest understory. The most common place to find this tree is in areas of full sun and ample moisture – those factors can raise a tree upwards of 30 feet high. The leaves, which are light green and about 8-12 inches long, sprout from a pyramid-shaped canopy. Those overarching limbs then provide a space underneath for young shoots to pop up, eventually allowing the tree to colonize a larger plot. Around this time of year though, reddish-purple flowers bloom from the tips of branches. Those flowers, which give off an unpleasant odor, attract the attention of local pollinators including the impressive Zebra Swallowtail. This butterfly is extremely dependent on the tree since it is the only species that can harbor its larvae, similar to how the milkweed plant is the only species able to support Monarch larvae. Chemicals in the Pawpaw leaves called acerogenins give the caterpillars an unpalatable taste and defend the butterflies from predation.

Like all pollinator/plant relationships, the one between the tree and the swallowtail is mutual. Once a flower is pollinated with pollen from a separate tree, you won’t have to wait too long to discover the best part of the species – the fruit.

Prairie Banana, Hillbilliy Mango, Custard apple, etc

The Pawpaw fruit best resembles a mango, but the creamy, custard-like flesh tastes more like a banana with hints of mango, vanilla, and citrus. When it begins to ripen in September and October, it can be found in clusters on the underside of branches. Once harvested, wait until the skin shows black spots (like a banana) and feels soft to the touch. At that point, you can use the rich flavor in smoothies, ice cream, puddings, preserves, jams, butter, breads, and even cocktails.

Where to Find Them

One of the easiest places to find a grove of Pawpaw trees here in the local Philly area is on Awbury’s grounds. In the sixteen acres west of Washington Ave you will find our Food Forest, a project spearheaded by Awbury, Weavers Way Community Programs (Food Moxie), and Philadelphia Orchard Project.

Started in 2013, this diverse permaculture demonstration orchard has now reached maturity and provides education and engagement to our community about growing fruits, nuts, natural medicine, and more. It is a hidden treasure amidst city blocks and beckons those with a curiosity for the ways in which we nourish ourselves. We always invite you to visit!