Benefits of Pawpaws

The large, luscious fruit of Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) trees is ripening now. Its flavor is a bit reminiscent of a tropical fruit, hinting at banana or mango. In addition to people, the fruits are eaten by many other mammals, including raccoons, fox, and squirrels. These animals help to distribute Pawpaw’s seeds.

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) fruit

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) fruit

Pawpaws contain more nutrients than many more commonly eaten fruits, including apples, grapes and peaches. They contain annonaceous acetogenins, chemical compounds that have anticancer properties. These compounds are able to sap cancer cells of their energy, and are thought to have potential in treating cancers that are resistant to other drugs. The compounds are also effective against malaria, as well as other microbial infections.

In addition to having fruit with a tropical taste, this woodland understory tree has a tropical look, with long, broad, tapering leaves.

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) leaves

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) leaves

Pawpaw reproduces easily through its root system, tending to form colonies. It’s appropriate for this tree and its fruit to hint of the tropics, since it is a member of the Custard Apple (Annonaceae) plant family, the majority of whose members are native to the tropics.

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)

The leaves contain compounds that deter herbivores, so deer browsing is not a problem, and few insects eat the leaves. There are always exceptions, though. Zebra Swallowtail butterfly and Pawpaw Sphinx moth caterpillars can tolerate consuming these chemicals. As a result, the chemicals protect the caterpillars, pupae and adults of these species, making them less palatable to predators. As the trees prepare for their winter dormancy over the next few weeks, Pawpaw leaves will turn bright yellow before finally falling from their branches.

Look for the flowers of Pawpaw as the leaves unfold in spring, usually in early May.

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) flowers

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) flowers

Pawpaw’s dark reddish maroon flowers attract insects as pollinators, primarily flies that lay their eggs in carrion (dead rotting flesh!), where their larvae, called maggots, develop. Some Carrion beetles may also be pollinators for this species. Pawpaw has evolved to attract these insects as pollinators through deception. The flower color mimics the carrion these insects visit to lay their eggs.  But these flower visitors will have to keep searching to find the right food for their offspring.

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) flowers with a fly, a possible pollinator

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) flowers with a fly, a possible pollinator

Pollination is just one service these insects perform. Their larvae decompose and recycle the flesh of dead animals, a public sanitation function they share with vultures that is very important in helping to minimize the spread of disease.

Pawpaw trees can be found in rich, moist woods in the eastern United States from New York south to northern Florida, west across southern Ontario to Michigan, Illinois, and Iowa, south to Nebraska and eastern Texas. Kentucky State University has a full time research program aimed at developing and refining methods to cultivate Pawpaw as a viable commercial crop.

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) flower

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) flower

Resources

Beresford-Kroeger, Diana. Arboretum America: A Philosophy of the Forest. 2003

Illinois Wildflowers

Kentucky State University Pawpaw Program

The Alternative Medicine Pawpaw and Its Acetogenin Constituents Suppress Tumor Angiogenesis via the HIF-1/VEGF Pathway

USDA NRCS Plant Database

Virginia Cooperative Extension Specialty Crop Profile: Pawpaw

 

9 thoughts on “Benefits of Pawpaws

  1. I planted 3 Asimina Triloba Pawpaws in my backyard. I’ve been fascinated with them ever since I first found them on the C&O Canal in Maryland and could not believe the amount of wildlife that ate these fruits. I guess it depends on where you plant them but getting them started is not easy; they don’t transplant well unless really small seedlings or you can grow from seed. The young trees are understory and sensitive to ultraviolet radiation and then as they mature they stretch out into direct and filtered sunlight and I am told they fruit better if in sunlight. The people I knew who grew them would hang chicken necks by each blossom to encourage the carrion beetles and flies to find the blooms. I’ve also read you can hand pollinate with a small paint brush. I planted mine mainly to attract Zebra Swallowtails. Great post to read.

    • I’ve also read that you can hand pollinate them. Chicken necks! That’s creative, and much less work than hand pollination. You’re much more likely to get viable fruit if you have plants from genetically different parents. Plants from the same colony may not be compatible.

  2. Sitting here eating a paw from my tree, so getting a kick out of the comments.
    Reason not in stores I think, they don’t really ripen correctly off tree, best ones- grab fallen ones before raccoons get them.
    As for what they taste like, well, they taste like paw paws, quite unique.
    Where, oh where is dear little Danny?
    Where, oh where is dear little Danny?
    Where, oh where is dear little Danny?
    Way down yonder in the paw-paw patch.

    Come on girls, let’s go find him,
    Come on girls, let’s go find him,
    Come on girls, let’s go find him,
    Way down yonder in the paw-paw patch.

    Pickin’ up paw-paws, put ’em in your pockets,
    Pickin’ up paw-paws, put ’em in your pockets,
    Pickin’ up paw-paws, put ’em in your pockets,
    Way down yonder in the paw-patch.
    Thanks Mary Anne

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