Pawpaw

Asimina triloba

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Illustration of pawpaw leaves, flowers, fruits.
Pawpaw (Asimina triloba).
Paul Nelson
Edible
Other Common Name
Papaw; Paw Paw
Family

Annonaceae (custard apples)

Description

Pawpaw is a large shrub to small tree with a slender trunk and broad crown; grows in colonies.

Leaves are alternate, simple, 6–12 inches long, 3–5 inches wide, broadest above the middle; margin lacking teeth; upper surface green; lower surface pale; emitting an odor when bruised.

Bark is light ash to dark brown, thin, smooth, later becoming warty with blotches.

Twigs are slender, olive-brown, often blotched, smooth, becoming rougher when older, often with a warty surface. Emits a disagreeable odor when crushed; terminal bud velvet brown, lacking scales; flower bud rounded, overwinters on previous year’s twig.

Flowers March–May; perfect (with male and female parts in same flower), dark reddish purple, solitary, drooping, about 1 inch across, appearing before the leaves and with an odor of fermenting purple grapes.

Fruits September–October. Banana-shaped, cylindrical, 3–5 inches long, green at first and yellow when ripe; pulp sweet, edible, with custardy texture.

Size

Height: to 30 feet; grows in colonies.

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Photo of a cluster of ripe pawpaws on a tree.
Ripe Pawpaws On Tree
Pawpaw hunters, this is your quarry! Note the size, shape, and color of the leaves as well as the look of the fruit.

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Photo of pawpaw leaves, looking up into the canopy.
Pawpaw Leaves
Pawpaw leaves can be a foot long and 5 inches wide. They lack teeth and are widest above the middle.

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Photo of pawpaw tree bark showing warty blotches.
Pawpaw Bark
The bark of pawpaw trees is light ash to dark brown, thin, smooth, and with age becomes warty with blotches.

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Image of a pawpaw tree
Pawpaw

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Photo of a pawpaw flower, viewed from side.
Pawpaw Flower
Pawpaw flowers hang downward like little bells.

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Photo of a pawpaw flower, held sideways to see inside the flower.
Pawpaw Flower
Pawpaw flowers are dark reddish purple. There are 6 petals in 2 whorls.

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Photo of a spent pawpaw flower, with petals falling off, exposing interior of flower.
Pawpaw Flower (Spent)
As the pawpaw flower matures, petals fall, exposing the many drying stamens and the green pistils that will become fruit.

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Photo of pawpaw pistils in early stage of growth.
Pawpaw Pistils
The fertilized pistils of a pawpaw flower are tiny at first, but they will grow into a nice cluster of pawpaw fruit!

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Photo of pawpaw fruit held in a hand, with more in a basket in the background.
Pawpaw Fruits
To say pawpaws are banana-shaped is not perfectly accurate, unless your bananas are exceptionally short.

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Photo of pawpaw leaves with yellowish green fall color.
Pawpaw in Fall Color
Pawpaw leaves typically turn yellowish green or yellow in autumn.

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three green pawpaw fruits
Pawpaw fruit

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Two green pawpaw fruits on a stem
Two green pawpaw fruits on a stem

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A purple-red pawpaw bud on a twig
Pawpaw bud

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Two red-purple pawpaw blossoms on a branch
Pawpaw blossoms
Habitat and conservation

Grows in dense shade on moist lower slopes, ravines, valleys, along streams, and at the base of wooded bluffs. Produces suckers from the roots, forming groves or thickets. The leaves turn yellow in autumn and remain on the tree late into the season. Pawpaw is a member of a tropical family and has no close relatives in Missouri. In nature, it is associated with sweet gum, river birch, sycamore, and roughleaf dogwood.

image of Pawpaw distribution map
Distribution in Missouri

Statewide, except for some of the far northern counties.

Status

This species is becoming increasingly popular as a landscaping tree and fruit-bearing ornamental.

Human connections

The sweet fruit is eaten raw or baked. The wood has no commercial use, but the inner bark was woven into a fiber cloth by Native Americans, and pioneers used it for stringing fish. Pawpaw extract is being studied as a possible cancer-fighting drug. There are many historical medicinal uses.

Ecosystem connections

The fruit is relished by numerous bird species and by squirrels, opossums, and raccoons. Often these creatures find the pawpaws before human pawpaw hunters do, which is one reason many people are planting their own pawpaw trees!