Way Down Yonder

© 2010 by Doug Elliott

Sally and I were walking through the woods along the forested flood plain of a meandering creek and we found ourselves in grove of distinctive looking small trees with large soft green leaves. The tip of each leaf tapered to long pointed drip tip that is characteristic of tropical rainforest plants. These trees, in fact, were northern members of a large family of tropical plants known as Annonaceae–the custard apple family.

In the tropics I had sampled sumptuous exotic fruits from that family–fruits with exotic flavors and colorful names. In Mexico and Central America I had slurped through guanabanas and cherimoyas. In the Florida Everglades I waded through sawgrass and lily pads to sample pond apples. On the Caribbean Islands I had relished the soursop and the bullock’s heart, and learned to listen for the excited raspy calls of the sweet-loving bananaquit birds announcing ripened sweetsops.

Well, right here in this shady Carolina creek bottom on this cool September day we were about to get a true taste the tropics.

How does that old song go?

Where oh where is sweet little Sally?
Where oh where is sweet sister Sally?
Where oh where were me and Sally?
Yes, we were indeed…
Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch!

Like most pawpaw trees, these were growing in the understory, shaded by taller poplars, sycamores, and maples. They are slender trees that rarely grow taller than thirty feet and the trunks rarely exceed a foot in diameter. I started moving through the patch grabbing the trees by the trunks and giving each one a brief, vigorous shake, and lo and behold, we started hearing the distinctive thumps of pawpaws hitting the ground. And before long we were excitedly…

Picking up pawpaws and puttin’ ‘em in our pockets. Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch!

Pawpaws are found from the north shore of Lake Ontario, south as far as northern Florida, and west to the Great Plains. In the Carolinas and other parts of the South we also have a dwarf pawpaw, a small shrub with tiny fruits.

As little known as pawpaws are, even today, they have interesting connections to our history. George Washington enjoyed dining on chilled pawpaws, and Thomas Jefferson cultivated them at Monticello. The Lewis and Clark expedition subsisted on “a great many papaws, a fruit in great abundance on the Missouri, from the river Platte to its mouth.” Daniel Boone and Mark Twain were reported to have been pawpaw fans. John James Audubon painted the yellow-billed cuckoo on a pawpaw tree. There are towns named Pawpaw in Indiana, Illinois, West Virginia, and Michigan.

A Portuguese chronicler who traveled with Hernando De Soto was the first European to write of pawpaws. He reported Native American tribes cultivating the fruit in the Mississippi Valley in 1541.

For the next 150 years, little is heard of the pawpaw until John Lawson, after traveling through the eastern half of North Carolina in 1700, reported in his 1709 Natural History Of Carolina, “The Papau is not a large tree [but] it bears an Apple about the bigness of a Hen’s Egg, yellow, soft, and as sweet as anything can well be. They [the Indians] make rare Puddings of this Fruit.”

Mark Catesby described and illustrated the pawpaw in his classic 1754 edition of Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. This was the first fully illustrated study of the natural history of North America. (Catesby described the pawpaw in Latin as, “Anona fructu lutescente, laevi, scrotum Arietis referente” which translates to mean, “Anona with smooth yellowing fruit resembling the scrotum of the Ram”.)

Annona was the Roman goddess of agricultural produce and her name was adopted for the plant family Annonaceae. The current botanical name for the pawpaw is Asimina triloba. Triloba describes the flower’s three petals and sepals. Asimina comes from “asimin” the Native American name for the fruit. (A native speaker of Algonquin dialects told me that the root of the word “min” refers to food, hence our name “persimmon” for another native fruit.)

Catesby included a full-sized painting of the pawpaw in his book, however, pawpaw aficionados have long pointed out that the painting is not quite accurate. It shows the flowers on the same branch with mature leaves and ripe fruit. This never happens in nature, as the flower appears in early spring well before the leaves reach full size. Catesby’s flowers are not the correct color either, being rendered greenish white rather than the rich brownish purple, and the fruit is unnaturally colored a deep golden yellow.

A little historical perspective, however, explains these discrepancies, and considering the circumstances, perhaps we could cut Mr. Catesby a little slack. Catesby had spent more than a decade exploring the Southeast observing, illustrating, and amassing a massive collection of plants and animals. Then he spent the next 20 years back in England working on his book, which is still acclaimed as a masterwork. Somehow he never ran across a pawpaw in his travels, so he prevailed upon Quaker botanists John Bartram and Peter Collinson for specimens. Bartram lived in Philadelphia and traveled extensively collecting plants and sending them to Collinson, in England, who would cultivate them and/or disperse specimens to interested parties like Catesby, Linnaeus, and other naturalists. But how would they possibly keep the delicate and ephemeral pawpaw flowers and the highly perishable fruit in good condition on the two month trip across the Atlantic by sailing ship? Collinson worked out a plan and sent the following instructions to Bartram in 1736:

There is another plant that we want seed and specimens of, that is the Papaw…[on] behalf of a curious naturalist, who neglected when in Virginia, to draw the Papaw; and as this is
a curious plant, in flower and fruit, and not figured by anybody…they tell us such stories of its fruit, that we would be glad to see it; which may be easily done, by gathering two or three bunches of its fruit, full ripe, and putting them into strong rum, in a jar or pot, and corking it up close, will keep very well…specimens of it in flower…one small twig would be enough; but thee may put several loose flowers in the jar of spirits, and then a couple of fruit, full ripe…

The pawpaw’s elegant flower has a distinctive meaty color and mild fetid aroma that attracts a variety of pollinators, from butterflies to carrion flies. (Todd Elliott photo)

How can we fault Catesby’s artistry if his flowers were a little faded after two months at sea rocking in a jar of rum, and so what if he gilded the fruit a bit? I do wonder how that pawpaw flavored rum tasted.

The pawpaw’s distinctive fleshy, purple-brownish-maroon flowers have a mild, fetid, musky aroma that attracts flies and other insects that serve as pollinators. In fact some pawpaw growers have been known to strew their pawpaw patch with road-kills to attract carrion flies and gnats who will likely investigate anything with a meaty appearance and a rank odor.

The pawpaw is North America’s largest native fruit. Pawpaws occasionally weigh more than a pound. The fruits often grow in bunches. (Todd Elliott photo)

The fruits are somewhat kidney-shaped, resembling soft stubby cucumbers, and usually weigh between a few ounces and a half pound. But they can be larger. Pawpaws are actually our largest native North American fruit. Neal Peterson, who is the founder of the Pawpaw Foundation and known to many as “Mr. Pawpaw”, told me that the largest pawpaw he ever grew weighed one pound, fifteen ounces. He said it was large enough to feed a family.

The pawpaw fruit is known for its creamy smooth texture, succulent sweetness, and exotic tropical flavor.

Inside the thin green skin, pawpaw fruit resembles a creamy banana with plump black seeds the size of large lima beans. The fruit is very nutritious–high in protein, vitamins, minerals, and sugars.

Describing the taste has long been a challenge for outdoor writers and pawpaw lovers alike. Neal Peterson says the taste is “a symphony of flavors in your mouth…like the finest custard you ever ate.” After downing a good pawpaw, he says, “the world is definitely a nicer place to be in.” Janet Lembke, the author of Shake Them ‘Simmons Down, an excellent book celebrating southern trees, after lamenting the difficulty in describing the flavor of a fruit that tastes like itself, she offers: “creamy smoothness of banana, enlivened by a light but definite hint of pineapple, a dollop of clover honey, and a dash of vanilla.” Euell Gibbons, the dean of American foragers, handed off the task to an Indiana country boy who said they taste like “mixed bananers and pears, and feel like sweet ‘taters in your mouth.” Jim Hillibush, a wry Ohio journalist wrote, “It’s an acquired taste. I’m still acquiring it…my pawpaw loving friend says it tastes like an ‘overripe banana with hints of mango, pineapple, melon and berries’ If still green, I’d add rancid sneakers …because you must know when a pawpaw is ripe. Unripe ones taste like, I don’t know, week old socks?” I wonder, do many Ohio journalists taste their old socks?

Derek Morris, a Forsyth County, NC Agricultural Extension agent, has thirty-some different varieties of pawpaw trees growing on less than an acre. He says the flavor varies with the different varieties and with the stage of ripeness. His favorite variety, so far, is the Overleese. He describes it as “caramel and butterscotch — rich, sweet and with the texture of a baked sweet potato. It improves with age,” he says, “even when the fruit turns black.”

Turning black is one of the obstacles the pawpaw faces on the road to wider acceptance and marketability. The reason you rarely see them in the market is because of their short shelf life, which is usually somewhere between six hours and three days. (Refrigeration can extend this somewhat.) Breeders are working to develop varieties with a longer shelf life, smaller seeds, and less bitterness and astringency than is found in many of the wild fruits.

In the last 20 years, there has been a great deal of interest in the developing the pawpaw as a commercial crop. The center for research into pawpaw production is Kentucky State University, which has had a comprehensive program since 1990. Ohio has crowned the pawpaw as its official state fruit. Ohio has its own pawpaw growers’ association and has held an annual pawpaw festival since 2000.

North Carolina has a number of growers as well, and occasionally North Carolina farmers markets feature pawpaws during the short time they are in season. The Dixie Classic Farmers Market in Winston-Salem has their annual Pawpaw Day the last Saturday in August.

Leslie Sanderson has over 50 trees producing near Maxton and he sells many pounds at markets in the Robeson County area. Milton “Pawpaw” Parker has a number of trees under cultivation near Whiteville, and he is involved in the formation of the Appalachian Pawpaw Growers Association. Parker can often be seen at the Columbus County Farmers Market selling fresh pawpaws in August when they are in season and pawpaw milkshakes off season. He says that freezing the pulp is a great way to store pawpaws. Pawpaw pulp really lends itself to smoothies, milkshakes, and ice cream. Morris says, “Even people who don’t like pawpaws like pawpaw ice cream,”

The pawpaw plant contains a plethora of potentially useful chemical compounds in the leaves, stems, and seeds. In the old days pawpaw seeds were powdered and used as treatment for head lice and more recently some of the compounds are being developed into insecticides. There is also another family of compounds found in the leaves and stems known as annonaceous acetogenins that are being used to treat cancer.

The pawpaw has a very fibrous inner bark that has been used since ancient times to make nets, rope, twine, and other cordage. In fact, that reminds me. Remember that gal, Sally, I was telling you about at the beginning of this article? Her name wasn’t really Sally, but many years ago when she and I were in that pawpaw patch we came upon a pawpaw tree that had just been knocked over by a large fallen branch I stripped the bark off that fallen tree and extracted a long strand of the smooth fibrous inner bark. She snatched that bark right out of my hands and she amazed me as she crocheted those natural inner bark fibers into a beautiful round doily- like thing. That same crocheted piece she made that day is now hanging on a wall in our house which overlooks a pawpaw patch on the banks of Chalk Creek in Rutherford County, NC. It’s been hanging there for more than 20 years. And that gal? She’s still hanging around, too — and she still amazes me.

My sweet wife, Yanna, made this piece of crochet work entirely from fibers of pawpaw bark.

Pawpaw Recipes

Pawpaws are best the day they reach perfect ripeness when they are soft to the touch. It is best to peel away the skin and eat them fresh out of hand. Be sure to spit out the seeds.

I learned from a Cuban friend to put the pawpaw pulp in a blender with milk, water, and honey and make a delicious smoothie drink he called “un vatido”.

The pulp can be used in place of bananas in any banana bread recipe, but when it comes to celebrating the taste of pawpaws, dishes with less cooking are better because heat destroys many of the flavors.

Pawpaw Pie or Parfait

Euell Gibbons, in his 1962 classic wild foods book, Stalking the Wild Asparagus, shared this recipe for parfait or pie filling:

In a sauce pan mix together 1/2 cup of brown sugar, 1 envelope unflavored gelatin, and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Stir into this 2/3 cup of milk and 3 slightly beaten egg yolks. Cook and stir the mixture till it comes to a boil. Remove from the heat and stir in 1 full cup of strained pawpaw pulp. Chill for about 20 or 30 minutes in the refrigerator until it mounds slightly when spooned. Shortly before the mixture is sufficiently set, beat 3 egg whites until they form soft peaks, then gradually add 1/4 cup of sugar, beating until stiff peaks form. Fold the partially set pawpaw mixture into the egg whites. Pour into a 9 inch gram cracker crust or into parfait glasses and chill until firm. “Then,” Gibbons recommends, “lock the doors to keep the neighbors out!”

Pawpaw Zabaglione

Pawpaw Zabaglione was created by Chef Michael Luska of the Yellow Brick Bank Restaurant in Shepardstown, WV for the banquet at the first Pawpaw Foundation conference.

Combine 6 egg yolks and 1/2 cup sugar in the top portion of a simmering double boiler, Warm 1 cup of passion fruit liqueur and add it to the egg yolk and sugar mixture, and cook, stirring constantly until thickened. Allow mixture to cool, then fold in 1 cup of pawpaw pulp Whip 1 cup of whipping cream and fold it into mixture. Serve chilled.

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For more nature lore and an amazing tale about an epiphany in the pawpaw patch check out my book Swarm Tree at www.dougelliott.com.

5 thoughts on “Way Down Yonder

  1. Great info! I’ve lived in the south (mostly East TN) all my life and I can’t recall ever seeing a pawpaw tree or fruit, but you’ve made me see it through this writing! Thanks! And lovely pawpaw doily!!!

  2. This is a great article, Doug. I hadn’t thought about researching the plant, even when I used to play the paw paw patch song/game with the children I taught. (Shame on me.) I wish I had this interesting article a long time ago. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Thanks for all the wonderful information on one of the most charismatic plants of n. america. I especially liked visualizing the pawpaw rum (and the subsequent sipping supposition) Todd is quite the photographer, both the flower and fruit photos were gorgeous! I love hearing the etymology of words i take for granted (no longer think about where they originated) and I am excited about growing pawpaw – I had no idea there were so many cultivars. Thanks again Doug, for yet another humorous and artful weaving of an entertaining botanical tale!

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