The Tropical Fruit Tree Americans Forgot

pawpaw fruit

In the Disney movie, The Jungle Book, Baloo the bear sings the well-known song The Bear Necessities. The song includes the following lyrics:

Now when you pick a pawpaw

Or a prickly pear

And you prick a raw paw

Well next time beware

While the pawpaw tree might sound like a fake fruit made up for the sake of a cute rhyme, you may be surprised to know that it’s real. It is a tropical fruit native to North America.

The Pawpaw

The pawpaw is a sweet fruit that tastes like a cross between a mango and a banana. The flesh is very rich, that some say has an almost icecream-like quality. Despite that tantalizing description, you won’t find it in your local grocery store.

The Indigenous Peoples of North America were the original cultivars of the pawpaw. It was once so widespread that today you can still find it growing in the wild from the southern tip of Florida to Indiana and Missouri, all the way up to southern Ontario, in Canada.

When European settlers arrived in the Americas and turned much of the forest into farmland, however, the fruit was largely forgotten [1].

The pawpaw is a tree of the species Asima tribola. You can eat the fruit raw, cook it into bread or puddings, or make it into ice cream. You can also make it into jams or jellies, or ferment it and turn it into beer or wine.

Pawpaw trees can grow to be anywhere from twenty to forty feet (six to twelve meters) tall. The fruit they produce is the largest in North America and typically ripens from July to September [2].

Unfortunately, the fruit is highly perishable and does not tolerate shipping. Once you lick a Pawpaw fruit, it can turn black within twenty four hours. For this reason, the only way to get a taste of this unique fruit is to find a tree yourself.

The Health Benefits of Pawpaw Fruit

Not only is this fruit delicious, it also provides some exciting health benefits, including a potential treatment for cancer.

The fruit contains acetogenins. These compounds prevent cells from making ATP, which is the energy source for the cell. In lab studies, Pawpaw extract was able to kill cancer cells that were resistant to chemotherapy drugs. Scientists have not yet conducted studies to determine if it works the same way in humans [3,4].

Pawpaw extract may also be effective as an anti-lice shampoo. Various reports have suggested that the fruit may be a remedy for a number of ailments, from joint pain to stomach ulcers to diabetes, however, none of these effects have been proven [4,5].

Some people, however, may experience an allergic reaction to the fruit. In particular, some find the leaves irritate their skin. Others may find the fruit makes them vomit, and in extreme but very rare cases, it could cause nerve toxicity [4].

Note: American pawpaw (Asima tribola) is not to confused with Brazilian pawpaw aka soursop or Graviola (Annona muricata).

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Breeding for Better PawPaw

Athen’s County, Ohio, is home to the world’s largest and longest-running pawpaw festival. According to Chris Chmiel, an Athens County Commissioner who founded the festival, the town is the pawpaw capital of the world.

“I have a pawpaw tattoo and I’m totally dedicated to getting the pawpaws to the people, that’s sort of been my motto,” he said [1].

He noticed that the fruit was just going to waste. He decided to do something about it, and that’s how the festival was born. Today, locals turn the fruit into breads, jams, jellies, beer, and wine. Chmiel says that the biggest hurdle is how easily the fruit spoils. 

“So we started processing them and freezing them and making shelf stable products with them.” [1]

Chmiel now runs the world’s largest pawpaw processing company.

Scientists and farmers are now attempting to breed a heartier version of the fruit, that’s larger and doesn’t spoil as quickly.

Sheri Crabtree, a researcher at Kentucky State University, is one of the scientists trying to develop a commercially viable version of the pawpaw. As of yet, they haven’t been able to breed any that can withstand shipping. According to her, we are still decades away from seeing pawpaw fruit on grocery store shelves.

She admits, though, that once that happens the fruit will lose a bit of it’s romance.

“I think part of pawpaw is it’s hard to find,” she said. “Some people still go out foraging in the woods for it, but even if you’re buying the cultivated varieties, it’s a short season, you have to rush to get them at the farmer’s market at exactly the right time.” [1]

Until then, if you live in a state with pawpaw trees, consider asking a local expert to help you find one. The experience of finding and eating a forgotten fruit will certainly be a memorable one.

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