“Pickin’ up Pawpaws”
You may know the song better than the tree or the fruit – “Pickin‘ up pawpaws, puttin’ ’em in your pocket…” But pawpaw trees are actually native to Nebraska. It’s a small tree, about 20 feet in height, that grows in the open woods and ravines of the Missouri River bluffs in southeastern Nebraska.
Their short, stubby, banana-like fruits ripen in September or early October. Like bananas, they have a narrow window for harvesting since they ripen quickly. The fruits will fall naturally when they’re ripe but can be handpicked when they’re not entirely mature. If picked too early, though, they may not finish ripening. The signs of ripeness aren’t easily visible since coloration varies depending on the season and weather. A slight softening of the fruit, similar to peaches, may be a more reliable test of ripeness.
Pawpaws have a rich flavor that is a mix of banana, vanilla custard, pineapple and mango, and they’re very nutritious – high in potassium, iron and calcium. The fruit can be used in cookies and breads where its creamy, custard-like flesh complements spices and other ingredients. They can also be eaten raw, but in small amounts as they can cause digestive problems.
As a tree, pawpaw or Asimina triloba has tropical-looking foliage that is conspicuous for its large size (leaves can be up to a foot long) that tends to turn a brilliant yellow in fall. They prefer moist, well-drained soils but are tolerant of clay and drought. They will tolerate dense shade but, for fruit production, are best grown in full sun. In the wild pawpaws can often be found in the shady understory of oak-hickory forests and they usually grow in colonies, spreading to form an attractive grove.
It’s an attractive landscape tree for even small spaces since they are narrower than they are high, and their tendency to colonize can be contained by mowing or otherwise removing young seedlings. They’re one of the last trees to leaf out in spring and early on the young leaves may appear yellowish or chlorotic but they soon turn a deep green.
Source: Karma Larsen, Nebraska Forest Service