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 pawpaw is 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.