...pickin' up pawpaws, puttin' 'em in a basket,
way down yonder in the pawpaw patch...
I learned that little ditty when I was a little ditty, singing it on the way to school. I didn't know what pawpaw were then. Most city folks don't. I didn’t actually find and taste a pawpaw until I moved to rural Missouri, some 17 years ago.
The pawpaw was first documented in 1557 by a Portuguese narrator, traveling with DeSoto during his expedition in the Mississippi valley in 1541, who reported encountering aboriginal American tribes that cultivated the fruit. In 1736, Quaker botanists John Bartram and Peter Collinson arranged for specimens to be sent to England for its delicious yellow pulp. The pawpaw was instrumental for the survival of western moving pioneers during the 18th and 19th centuries:
We can never realize what a great blessing the pawpaw was to the first settlers while they were clearing the great natural forest and preparing to build cabins. Planting fruit trees was rather an experiment for a number of years. The pawpaws, and a few other wild fruits of less value, were all their dependence had, so far as fruit is concerned. Well do I remember sixty or more years ago my father would take his gun and basket and go to the woods and return in the evening loaded with pawpaws, young squirrels and sometimes mushrooms of which he was very fond. But there will never be a recurrence of those days which were the happiest of my life.
- James A. Little, The Paw Paw, 1905.
Thelma Bilyeu, 87, who has written several books about growing up in the Ozarks, remembers:
We lived on the creek, and there was lots of pawpaws. And when they'd get ripe in the fall, we'd go pick buckets of them. They kind of taste a little like bananas. We didn't have much in the way of fruit like that then, and my mother just really loved them. That was a big deal to go pawpaw hunting.
Since these romantic times and with the arrival of tropical fruits and commercial development of orchards, the pawpaw returned to obscurity, the main problem being commercial, as they are not suited to automated picking, storage and transport. More recently the pawpaw has been rediscovered by horticulturists, plant breeders and landscapers, and breeding programs are underway to develop more commercially viable varieties.
But, somehow, I don't think they will ever taste so good as the ones found tucked away in groves or patches in moist, cool hollows, in river bottoms or on fertile wooded slopes besides streams.
It is usually a small tree, seldom exceeding 8 inches in diameter and 30 feet in height. The wood is soft, a greenish colour, and has no commercial use, though the fibrous inner bark was used by Native Americans to string fish and repair fish nets. The pawpaw resembles a deciduous magnolia, although its bold, lance-shaped leaves droop toward the ground, are alternate, borne simple on a short stalk, sometimes growing from 6 to 12 inches long and 3 to 5 inches wide. When crushed, the leaves have a pungent odour reminiscent of bell pepper. Two-inch wine-coloured flowers appear briefly in spring just as the leaves are developing. The exotic flowers with six brown to maroon petals appear before the leaves and are one inch across when mature. They have an odour of fermenting grapes. The fruits, which ripen in the fall and range in length from 2 to 4 inches, are the largest edible fruit from any native North American tree.
In the winter, this small tree is easy to identify by its velvet brown, naked or feather-like terminal bud. The twigs are light to dark reddish-brown and the buds are covered with rusty-red hairs. The bark is smooth and thin. It is light ash-coloured, warty with blotches emitting a disagreeable odour when crushed.
Wildlife such as opossum, raccoon, fox, quail, turkey, and a variety of birds relish the pawpaw fruit. Also, the pawpaw is the only host plant for the Zebra Swallowtail, a fact well-known by butterfly gardeners.
The taste of the fruit varies from location to location giving the many descriptions of its flavour: 'reminiscent of papaya with pineapple overtones, with bits of banana and mango; a complex combination of tropical fruit flavors; a creamy mixture of banana and pinneapple; an acquired, smoky taste; simply awful.'
Horticulture: worldwide connoisseurs chose the fruit as one of the six most delicious in the world.
Some people even prepare cakes, pies and cookies from this fleshy fruit. Indeed the fruit is known as the Missouri banana in these parts.
Pawpaw Chiffon Pie
• 1/2 cup brown sugar
• 1/2 tsp salt
• 2/3 cup milk
• 3 separated eggs
• 1 cup pawpaw pulp
• 1 pkg Knox gelatin
Mix brown sugar, salt and gelatine in a pan. Add milk and egg yolks. Cook this mixture until it comes to a boil, then stir in pawpaw pulp and refrigerate until it is chilled, about 20 to 30 minute. Beat egg whites, gradually adding 1/4 cup sugar; mix until stiff peaks are made. Fold egg whites into pawpaw blend and serve as a pie or pudding(from Wild Edibles of Missouri by Jan Phillips).
Pawpaw trees, bushes and patches a part of many American folklore stories and legends. They were used for protection against Ozark Witches:
Ozarkers employed several protective measures to thwart the efforts of witches. Great concern was given to the protection of the home. Driving three nails into the outside of a door, in the form of a triangle, was said to prevent witches from entering a dwelling. Other effective means to guard the home against witches were painting the outside of a door blue, driving several tiny pegs of pawpaw wood into the doorsill, or nailing a horseshoe (open end upward) over the door.
And the tree was used in the powerful Pawpaw Conjure:
This charm could be employed if the witch master could obtain the witch's nail parings, a lock of hair, a tooth, or a cloth with her blood on it. The hair, nail parings, or other personal effects were stuck to the end of a wooden peg with beeswax. The witch master took this peg out into the woods at midnight, bored a hole in the fork of a pawpaw tree, and drove the peg into the hole. The witch, and her powers, were expected to dwindle.
And in old sayings:
In the fall, Buck Run bananas are ripe - in the frost fall, a wise man takes a wife (Buck Run banana is local slang for the fruit of the pawpaw tree).
True stories - From the Hatfields and McCoys:
Ellison, bleeding profusely from 26 stab wounds and a bullet in his back, was borne away. Anse and his kin quickly rounded up the three McCoys. Two days later Ellison died. The Hatfields tied the three boys, all sons of Ran'l, to pawpaw bushes on the Kentucky side of the river and pumped 50 rifle bullets into them.