Way down yonder in the Paw Paw patch

Paw Paw bloom

Dr. Bob Gilbert – Columnist

Dr. Bob Gilbert

I grew up in southern Ohio.  We lived for a awhile in a rural area on the outskirts of Dayton, Ohio, in my grandmother’s guest house.  It was close to the banks of the Stillwater River, a tributary of the Ohio River.  I seem to recall that the river often flooded filling up the basement of our house as well as the bottom land. The flood plain and river had special treats for a young and curious kid.  The top of my list were crawdads and Paw Paws.  I did not know until much later in life that Paw Paws are native to the entire Eastern part of the U.S.  In ancient times they were a food source for Ground Sloths and Mastodons who distributed the fairly large seeds far and wide.

I was on a botany field trip one time and our guide pointed out a clump of trees.  I remember him commenting that he grew up with these plants in Ohio.  I had not seen one in years but I blurted out Paw Paw.  Michael Dirr was along and proclaimed that they had “lurid” blooms.  I had to look up lurid in the dictionary to discover that lurid means “vividly shocking.”  He was correct, of course, the blooms are a strange purple or maroon color.  The blooms open in early spring just before the leaves unfold with a faint yeasty and slightly fetid smell.

I also used to be puzzled by the folk song “Way down Yonder in the Paw Paw Patch. “ Eventually I observed that Paw Paws are, in fact, clump formers, clonal or are stoloniferous meaning they send out underground stems or shoots resulting in a patch.   Way down yonder likely means they prefer bottom lands that stay moist.

Pawpaw fruit

Paw Paws, Pawpaws, Papaws or Paw-paws are deciduous understory trees, sometimes called shrubs.  There are many other common names.  Their scientific name is Asimina triloba (a-sim-i-na  tri-lo-ba).  It belongs to the Annoniaceeae or Custard Apple family composed mostly of tropical fruiting plants.  Asimina is likely an adaptation of a native American word, asimin.   There are nine species but triloba is the most common. There are two other species in N. America but are very rare.  

It is the fruit that makes this tree so unique and distinct.   It produces the largest edible fruit of any native North American plant except gourds which are considered vegetables.  The fruit has a sweet, custard favor suggesting faint traces of mangos, bananas, papaya and pineapple.  It can be eaten raw, made into ice cream or cooked into custard desserts.  Paw Paw custard was a favorite of George Washington.  The fruit has to ripen on the tree which informs the song stanza “picking up Paw Paws and putting them in your pocket.”  The easiest way to tell if they are ripe is let them fall to the ground.  The fruit is yellow-green to brown and can grow to two to four inches and ripens in September to October.  However, it takes seven or eight years for a seedling to produce fruit. Also, it has to be cross pollinated; you need more than one plant to produce fruit.   There is never an abundance of fruit because there are not many pollinators attracted to the lurid blooms.  There have been attempts to grow it as a cash crop.  There are even cultivars that have been named and chosen because they produce more fruit and earlier. 

The fruits of Paw Paws have higher nutritional values than apples, peaches, grapes in vitamin, minerals and are rich in amino acids.

The average tree gets about 12 feet tall but can reach get to 30 feet. They do best in moist soils.  They are often found along streams.  The fruit has black, bean-shaped seeds that are easy to germinate as long as they do not dry out.  Trees are also propagated by divisions and graftings.  The leaves of Paw Paw have a disagreeable odor only when bruised.  Leaves, bark, and twigs contain a chemical the repels insects.  In spite of the chemicals the Zebra Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars use it as a primary food source.  Racoons are very fond of the fruit.

A Paw Paw Festival occurs in Winston-Salem, N.C., in August.  I have never attended but I bet it would be fun.  I think this year’s festival has been canceled because of the virus.

Given names inspired by plants

Not too long ago I was at a party and we were playing word games.  For example, how many names can you think if that can be used by both males and females?  Also, what given names can you think of that have plants as an origin?  To make it a little more interesting someone has to actually know a person with that name. Fern, Aster, Holly, Laurel, Daisy, Arbutis, Poppy, Jack, Wood, Rose, Joe, Lily, Heather, Hyacinth, Iris, Lotus, Lavender, Rosemary, Olive, Timothy, Flora, Hazel, Aster, Forest, Mace, Pansy, Althea, Basil, Dahlia, Linden, Sage, Huckleberry and Moss.

Dr.  Bob Gilbert is co-founder of Smith Gilbert Gardens in Kennesaw, Ga.

Karen Lawrence is a professional wildlife and horticultural photographer from Franklin.