Foraging and Growing Pawpaws: North America’s Native ‘Banana’

Thanks to a lucky discovery made in Michigan, Tom Fox now grafts and grows pawpaw cultivars on his family’s farm.

| Fall 2016

  • Pawpaws ripen on the branch then fall when they’re fit to eat.
    Photo by Andrew Moore
  • Look for pawpaw blooms in early spring with or slightly before the tree’s leaves.
    Photo by Tom Fox
  • Find Moore's book online at MotherEarthNews.com/Store.
    Photo by Chelsea Green Publishing

Recipes that Feature Pawpaws

Simple Pawpaw Ice Cream Recipe
Pawpaw Pudding Recipe

Unbelievable as it might be, pawpaws (Asimina triloba) share a tropical ancestor with the banana, are native to northern USDA Plant Hardiness Zones, and are as naturally pest-resistant and hardy for growers as they are delicious and nutritious for consumers. If you’ve never foraged, planted, or tasted a pawpaw, you may think that this native fruit simply doesn’t exist. Well, I’m here to tell you that of the many fruit and vegetable cultivars and varieties that my family grows at Magicland Farms, our banana-like pawpaws are among the most popular.

Even though we farm in a cold climate (Zone 5), we didn’t plant our pawpaws in greenhouses or solariums. Rather, we grow them outside, and, while their DNA is composed of genes that evolved in the tropics, pawpaw trees easily survive in temperatures that drop below zero.

The pawpaw belongs to the custard apple family, which includes tropical delights such as sweetsop, soursop, cherimoya, and, of course, the custard apple, which is the botanical family’s namesake. Pawpaws are also locally known as Michigan bananas, Hoosier bananas, and insert-state-where-they-are-native bananas because their flavor, and in some ways their texture, is reminiscent of the grocery-store-variety banana.



How I Got My Start Growing Pawpaws

Many years ago, I read Euell Gibbons’ book, Stalking the Wild Asparagus, and, when I got to the chapter on growing and foraging “papaws” (Gibbons’ spelling), I felt tingles travel from my toes to my neck. (Read a vintage "Plowboy interview" with Euell Gibbons on foraging for native wild edibles.) What I read in Stalking the Wild Asparagus indicated that the pawpaw tree was unusual; it bore delicious fruit that wasn’t bothered by bugs or disease, and, perhaps most intriguing of all, it was really a tropical tree that somehow wound up with enough toughness to grow wild in northern USDA Plant Hardiness Zones. (Today, many readers will have a similar experience with Andrew Moore’s Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit.)

After learning that the pawpaw’s native range spreads from northern Florida to southern Ontario, and as far west as eastern Nebraska to eastern Texas, I kept an eye out for it every time I took a walk or drove through a forested area in my native state of Michigan. Sadly, I looked for years without finding even a single pawpaw tree to forage a fruit from. Then, on one warm mid-October day, when my dad and I were looking for a good place to fish along the banks of Michigan’s Muskegon River, I walked right into a pawpaw thicket! The next day, thoughts of fishing faded from my mind, but I still headed back to the river. This time, I carried a camera and (yes, I confess) a shovel. I used a roll of film photographing the beautiful pawpaw trees, and then I calmly dug up an 18-inch-high root sucker from the big pawpaw patch. My only excuse is that I was young and naive.






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