The paw-paw is the official native fruit tree for the state of Ohio. It is the largest edible fruit native to the U.S., and was given this state status in 2000. As you know, our state tree is the Buckeye, state bird the cardinal, state gemstone is flint, etc.
The paw-paw was first noted by deSoto as he explored the Mississippi Valley in 1541.
Both George Washington and Tom Jefferson grew and cultivated them at their estates. Lewis and Clark, as well as other explorers and mountain men, used the fruit to supplement their diet. The problem with that plan was that the fruit would ripen quickly and they would have to beat the wildlife to it.
In today’s forest, paw-paw fruit attracts opossum, raccoon, squirrel, birds, fox and deer. It’s thought that before the last Ice Age, the mastodon and the ground sloth ate the paw-paw fruit and distributed the seeds. When the ice receded, Native Americans ate the fruit and made baskets, fishing nets and mats from the trees stringy inner bark.
Assimina Triloba is paw-paw’s botanical name. The name assimina is somewhat obscure. It may be a French version of the American Indian name “assimin.” Triloba refers to the “3 -lobed” brown flowerets of the paw-paw.
At that point of discovery, in 1541, it should be remembered that deSoto had already come in contact with many new forms of vegetation not native to Europe. He had seen Carlia Papaya (papaya) in the West Indies. As he is overwhelmed with the native forests with the Old and New World, why wouldn’t he think of the paw-paw as a papaya?
The fruit of the paw-paw is at the top of the tree crown whether the tree is 6 or 16 feet tall. The tree will be branchless. The fruit are light green and 3-5 inches long until maturity when they ripen to a brownish curved small banana. The fleshy pulp is of a custard taste and the seeds are poisonous but when crushed can be used to control head lice. Don’t some of these little fun facts make you wonder just how the witch doctors of yesteryear spent their time? How did these guys dream up the experiments they did to place themselves at the cutting edge of today’s medicine? Some examples would be: paw-paw seed – head lice, buckeye seed – hemorrhoids, willow – aspirin, etc. The things that make you go, “Hmmmmm.”
In today’s forest, the paw-paw is mainly a wildlife food. The fruit is only ripe for a few days in late summer to early fall. The bloom and leaf are of a foul smell to most except the pollinators, and the fruit is high in the tree. This usually protects the “custard fruit” to maturity.
The easiest way to find the trees would be to see their oblong, drooping, yellow leaves showing brightly in the early fall at the wood’s edge, while most are still green. Upon closer inspection, you will see the tree 6 to 16 feet tall and usually in a clump (multi-stem) trunk form.
Dudley Wooten is the owner/operator of Wooten’s Landscaping and Nursery, and can be contacted at 740-820-8210.