Paw paw fruit-Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

Pawpaw fruit. Photo: Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden.

Paw Paw flower-Missouri Botanical Garden

Pawpaw flowers. Photo: Missouri Botanical Garden.

Pawpaw leaves-Plant Image Library

Pawpaw leaves. Photo: Plant Image Library.

By Joseph Mooney
Native plant of the week: Pawpaw (Asimina triloba). A taste of the tropics right here in Michigan.
This week’s native plant is the pawpaw, a plant that’s been getting a lot of attention lately for its tropical-tasting fruits, likened to the flavors of banana, mango, and pineapple. The pungently scented fruit can be eaten raw or cooked and needs ripening in a well-ventilated area until the skin turns yellow to brown and the flesh is soft.
Pawpaw is found from western New York west to eastern Texas and east to the Florida panhandle. It’s an understory tree that tolerates shade and likes its feet consistently moist, rich, and well-drained. Pawpaw grows to about 30 feet and is hardy in zones 5a-8b. The University of Michigan Herbarium reports that pawpaw has been found in most of the lower tier of Michigan counties. Southern Michigan is generally the northernmost range of this tree that hails from the mostly tropical Annonaceae family. This family includes soursop and custard-apple.
Asimina triloba range map

Asimina triloba range map.

Pawpaw fall leaves-Missouri Botanical Garden

Pawpaw fall leaves. Photo: Missouri Botanical Garden.

zebra swallowtail-JM Gesell

The zebra swallowtail’s larvae feed on the leaves of pawpaw. Photo: J.M. Gesell.

Asimina triloba’s growth habit is clonal, and it can form small colonies. To produce fruits, pawpaw’s flowers must be cross-pollinated from genetically distinct plants. The fly-pollinated flowers are reddish and give off a disagreeable odor. The drooping leaves may be up to a foot long and give the tree a tropical look. In fall the leaves turn yellow.
It’s known that pawpaw was important in many early Indigenous diets. In his book “Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit,” food author Andrew Moore writes that “pawpaw seeds and other remnants have been found at archaeological sites of the earliest Native Americans, and in large, concentrated amounts . . . whether at Meadowcroft [a national historic landmark in Washington County, Pa.] or the rugged hills of Arkansas, the earliest Americans put pawpaws to great use.”
Beside the cool leaves and flowers and tasty fruit, A. triloba just keeps giving us more reasons to like it: it’s the larval host of the elegant zebra swallowtail butterfly (Eurytides marcellus) and the pawpaw sphinx moth (Dolba hyloeus).