by Kate Evans
Nestled in fertile valleys, along river banks and in rich woodlands, the paw paw tree grows bearing a custard-like fruit that has a mixed flavor of banana, mango, pineapple and cantaloupe.
This time of year, the fruit starts becoming visible under the towering canopies of the large-leaf paw paw tree. The trees grow abundantly along the C&O Canal and Western Maryland Rail Trail.
Paw paw is the largest native fruit that grows in the United States. The fruit is often eaten raw but the paw paw pulp is used in a variety of dishes from bread and pudding to salsa and ice cream.
Some say that wild paw paw trees are more prolific in our area now than they ever were, no doubt from the animals that eat their fruit and spread its seeds.
The paw paw tree is native to the eastern and mid-western United States and is found as far west as Texas and Nebraska and as far north as Canada and New York.
To the southwest, the Paw Paw Bends of the Potomac River and the town of Paw Paw, W.Va. are named after this native tree. The town sits where West Virginia and Maryland meet.
Towns and villages named Paw Paw exist in Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan and Illinois. Michigan also has the Paw Paw River and the Paw Paw Railroad.
The paw paw has many common names including wild banana, hillbilly mango, Quaker delight, West Virginia banana, Appalachian banana, Hoosier banana, prairie banana, American custard apple and poor man’s banana.
About paw paws
Paw paw trees can be shrub-sized or nearly 35 feet in height. The paw paw fruit ripens in August, September or October, depending on the region.
The scientific name for paw paw is Asimina triloba and the tree has large green oval-shaped leaves that turn yellow in the fall.
The fruit is initially green then turns yellow and brown as it matures. The fruits are eaten by raccoons, opossums, grey foxes, squirrels and black bear. Deer rarely eat the leaves.
Paw paw trees are easily grown from their dark seeds but it takes seven to eight years for the seedlings to yield fruit.
Paw paws existed before the Ice Age and were probably spread by giant mammals of the era before their extinction. Humans became the central disperser of paw paws later in history.
The written history of paw paws goes back to before the mid-1500s. Native Americans were found cultivating paw paws east of the Mississippi by Spanish explorers in 1541. The Pawnee, Choctaw and Kansa Native American tribes all have names for the paw paw fruit in their languages.
George Washington is said to have enjoyed chilled paw paws as a favorite dessert and the Lewis and Clark Expedition ate paw paws during their travels when provisions ran low. Thomas Jefferson also planted paw paw trees at his home at Monticello, Virginia.
Naturalist John James Audubon depicted paw paw foliage and fruit in his illustration of the yellow-billed cuckoo in “Birds of America.”
Paw paws are being cultivated in some states including Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio and Massachusetts.
“Father” of paw paws
Neal Peterson of Harpers Ferry is the true “Father” of the paw paw. Peterson developed six patented varieties of paw paws –Shenandoah, Susquehanna, Rappahannock, Allegheny, Potomac and Wabash — and is now touting his seventh premium paw paw variety Tallahatchie.
Peterson ate some ripe paw paws while on a hike in 1975 when he was studying for his master’s degree in plant genetics at West Virginia University. He wondered why there wasn’t mass cultivation of paw paws and paw paws for sale at grocery stores. It became his mission.
Whether wild or cultivated, paw paws have a special place in the hearts of locals that hike to find them and bake goodies made with their sweet and unique fruit.
Kate Shunney contributed to this story.