The Paw Paw, a Favored Fruit of the Mastodon

A large exotic fruit used to be a common component of North America’s virgin bottomland forests.  The paw paw (Asimona triloba), also known as the prairie banana, the Hoosier banana, the Michigan banana, and the custard apple is the only temperate member of a tropical family of fruit trees.

Paw paw fruit cut in half.

It looks delicious and is related to the cherimoya which can occasionally be found in some supermarkets.  Reportedly, paw paws taste like banana custard, a rich flavor that some love but others find too cloying.  Unfortunately, when shipped, it turns to brown mush, so unless the curious epicure has a tree in their neighborhood, they’re out of luck.  I’ve wanted to try this fruit for decades but have been frustrated–none grow in the second growth woods around Augusta, Georgia.  I did come across some on a hike through the Congaree Swamp in South Carolina many years ago, but the fruit wasn’t ripe in July–it ripens in September and October.   I have tasted cherimoya which is flavored like a cross between a pear and a pineapple.

Paw paws are still found in the wild today but are rare because they require shade to grow.  98% of North American forests have been cleared at one time or another, and once the virgin forest canopy is eliminated, paw paws don’t return.   Horticulturalists are breeding the trees for home gardeners, however.

Paw paws have large seeds that can go right through an animal’s digestive tract without being destroyed.  A number of scientists believe this species was dependent on the alimentary tracts of mastodons and giant ground sloths for dispersal.  No herbivore living in North America today is able to swallow the seeds whole.  Paw paws are only found in the wild alongside rivers and streams, despite growing well on upland sites when transplanted by humans.  Following the extinction of the megafauna, flooding was the only way the seeds could spread, explaining why they’re only found in the wild near waterways.  But during the Pleistocene, when mastodons and sloths ate the fruit, they carried them to upland sites and defecated the viable seeds there, so it’s likely this fruit had a more continous range then than it does today. 

Fossils of paw paws are known from as early as 50 million years ago during the Eocene.  It’s possibly an older species than that, being a food of dinosaurs as well.  Most of the family is tropical, but at least this species was able to adapt to temperate climates that began with the coming of the Pleistocene.

(I’ll send a free copy of my book to anyone who will ship paw paw seeds and/or fruit to me.)

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17 Responses to “The Paw Paw, a Favored Fruit of the Mastodon”

  1. Bruce Keegan Says:

    How do I get on your mailing list ?

    This is great stuff.

  2. markgelbart Says:

    Isn’t there a place on the top where you can click on? I think just click on follow.

  3. Alluvial and Colluvial Geology of Pleistocene Georgia « GeorgiaBeforePeople Says:

    […] in the understory.  Paw paw (See my blog entry–”Favored Fruit of the mastodons” https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2010/10/01/the-paw-paw-a-favored-fruit-of-the-mastodon/ BTW, the offer still stands–a free copy of my book in exchange for paw paw seeds or […]

  4. Beckie Elliott Says:

    I have a few paw-paws on the trees in my woods this year. (I live in Paw Paw Township in Wabash Co., IN) I will be happy to send you some seeds if the raccoons don’t get them first. Not a lot of them this year with the late frost & drought conditions in this area. Let me know how I should go about getting you these seeds. (Do I dry them first & freeze them or do I put an entire fruit in a ziploc bag & send it to you?

  5. markgelbart Says:

    Thanks.

    Just put the fruit in a plastic bag. The fruit will probably get mushy and go bad, but the seeds will be ok.

    My mailing address is
    Mark Gelbart
    1144 Piney Grove Road
    Augusta, Georgia 30906.

    And I will send a free copy of my book in return as offered.

  6. Beckie Elliott Says:

    I will mail in a few days…UPS or Regular Mail, which do you prefer?

    • markgelbart Says:

      Regular mail. I think they’re better and cheaper than UPS.

      I didn’t know pawpaws ripened this early. I thought they ripened in September.

      • Beckie Elliott Says:

        They are very small this year. And yes, you are correct about the ripening time. I will send when ripe. Due to their small size, I imagine it will be earlier. I will be posting a photo on Facebook later today.

      • markgelbart Says:

        All the fruit around Augusta is 2 weeks earlier this year too.

        You can post a link to your facebook page here, if you want.

  7. Beckie Elliott Says:

    Will be mailing your paw-paws today or tomorrow. Sent you a couple of nuts that had fallen from neighboring trees, too. They were beginning to fall so I thought I should send them before the racoons take off with them….lol…hope they work out for you!

    • markgelbart Says:

      Thanks, I’ll be looking for them.

    • markgelbart Says:

      I just received the paw paws. They all arrived in good shape except for 1 that kind of disintegrated but was still edible.

      My wife and I agreed they taste delicious.

      I’ve already planted 6 of the seeds in pots.

      I’ll ship a copy of my book to you next Tuesday.

      • Beckie Elliott Says:

        Glad you enjoyed them. The one by itself had fallen from the tree & was the ripest. Grow little pawpaws, grow!!!!

      • Beckie Elliott Says:

        Did your paw paws sprout & live? Just wondering…

      • markgelbart Says:

        I wouldn’t expect them to sprout until next spring. Most fruit seeds from species that grow in temperate climates need a dormant winter period before they sprout.

  8. Pawpaws, Favored Fruit of the Mastodons Part II « GeorgiaBeforePeople Says:

    […] family of plants that grows and produces fruit in the temperate regions of North America.   https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2010/10/01/the-paw-paw-a-favored-fruit-of-the-mastodon/  Some paleoecologists speculate that the pawpaw has a more localized distribution today than it […]

  9. My Pawpaw Seeds Germinated | GeorgiaBeforePeople Says:

    […] See also https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2010/10/01/the-paw-paw-a-favored-fruit-of-the-mastodon/ […]

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