Extension shares benefits, heritage, of pawpaw fruit
Most people in the Midwest are familiar with the traditional folk song about picking pawpaws, 'Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch,' but, where is the pawpaw patch and what in the world is a pawpaw?
"Pawpaws may be the best Missouri native fruit that you have never eaten," said Dr. Pam Duitsman, nutrition specialist with University of Missouri Extension. "The pawpaws are the largest edible fruit native to the United States."
Historically, pawpaws were eaten by Native Americans, settlers, and adventurers like Lewis and Clark. Pawpaws were planted by George Washington at Mt. Vernon, and by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. They grow wild in the Midwest, and grow statewide in Missouri, except for in a few far northern counties.
The pawpaw trees often sucker and grow in thickets, in moist shaded areas such as lower slopes and ravines, along streams, and at the base of wooded bluffs.
Harvest time for pawpaws is between August and October in Missouri, depending on the cultivar.
The flavor of the sweet fruit has been described as a creamy, custardy-mango banana, having an exotic taste.
Pawpaws are oval, similar to a mango, and have a mottled green exterior, with lima bean-sized black seeds. The mature pawpaw will likely be between three and six inches long, with skin turning yellow as the fruit matures and ripens, just about the time they are falling off the tree.
In time, the fruit will turn brown much like an overripe banana. Ripeness can be determined in similar ways to that of a peach - by the softness of the fruit, and the pleasant aroma. To eat, just cut in half, peel the thin skin away and scoop out the seeds with a spoon.
"Pawpaws are very nutritious, containing three times as much Vitamin C as an apple, and twice as much as a banana," said Duitsman.
Pawpaws are also good sources of magnesium, iron, copper, manganese, potassium, riboflavin, niacin, phosphorus and zinc; and are higher in protein than most fruits, containing all of the essential amino acids. A whole pawpaw contains about 80 calories, 1.2 grams of fat, and 2.6 grams of dietary fiber.
"Pawpaws also contain phytochemicals in the phenolic and flavonoid families — thought to promote health and help prevent disease," said Duitsman.
Specifically, procyanidin (in the flavonoid family), has strong antioxidant activity and has been correlated with reduced risk of coronary heart disease and mortality in recent research studies.
Finding and Growing Pawpaws
"Although this amazing, local tropical fruit is healthy and delicious, you will not find it on grocer's shelves. Currently, there are not enough growers of pawpaw to provide the quantity needed to sell retail," said Duitsman.
A potentially bigger barrier to grocer access is that pawpaws are highly perishable, do not ship or travel well, and only last a few days at room temperature. If refrigerated, a pawpaw may keep up to three weeks. The flesh of the ripe fruit can be pureed and frozen for later use.
"If you want to get back to growing local and honoring the heritage of Missouri foods, try growing pawpaws," said Duitsman. "They grow well in the local climate, have few pests, and are relatively carefree. Grown from seeds, plants can begin bearing fruit within five years.
Consider the pawpaw varieties Shenandoah, Susquehanna, Overleese, Sunflower, and PA Golden, all of which have performed well in research trials at the University of Missouri Southwest Research Center.
Patrick Byers, University of Missouri Extension horticulture specialist, recommends planting at least two trees or varieties for cross-pollination. Byers and others are featuring pawpaws at Fall Field Day at the University of Missouri Southwest Research Center on Saturday, Sept. 9.
For more information on the program or growing pawpaws, go to southwest.cafnr.org/events/, or visit extension.missouri.edu.