Pawpaws, Favored Fruit of the Mastodons Part II

One of the first essays I ever wrote for this blog was about the pawpaw (Asimina triloba), a tree from a mostly tropical family of plants that grows and produces fruit in the temperate regions of North America.  Some paleoecologists speculate that the pawpaw has a more localized distribution today than it did during the Pleistocene because the fruit seed is no longer spread across the uplands in the dung of now extinct megafauna such as mastodons and ground sloths.  It’s mostly found in moist river bottomlands where floodwaters distribute the fruit seed.  I’ve been wanting to taste a pawpaw for probably close to 30 years, but I never found any growing in Augusta, Georgia.  I did find some in Congaree National Park, but the fruit was not ripe yet.  So I offered a free copy of my book, Georgia Before People, to anyone who sent me some pawpaw fruit or seed.  It took a couple of years, but someone was kind enough to respond and send me 5 pawpaws.

Supposed range map of the pawpaw (Asimina triloba).  In 1970 the Mango variety of pawpaw was found from a wild tree growing in Tifton, Georgia, significantly south of what this map indicates.  Charles Wharton reported pawpaws were common in the alluvial and colluvial woods of the upper piedmont where water can carry the fruit seed.


Indiana pawpaws shipped to Augusta, Georgia.

Each pawpaw had an average of 8 seeds.  I planted 9 seeds in pots.  After I used all of my available pots I  planted the rest directly in the ground.

One of the pawpaws was overripe and fell apart during shipping but the rest were perfectly ripe.  They taste very sweet and have the texture of a cooked sweet potato.  The aroma is faintly tropical.  It is an outstanding worthwhile fruit, considering the ones I ate were from uncultivated trees.  Uncultivated apples and pears by comparison are usually so poor in quality they are practically inedible.  Some horticulturalists are attempting to cultivate new varieties of pawpaws.  The main obstacle they face is the inability of the ripe fruit to keep for long enough to store in warehouses and ship.  I think there are now well over 20 cultivated varieties, including Sunflower which has orange flesh, and Mango from a wild tree found in Tifton, Georgia.  Photos from promoters of pawpaws show them split open and they suggest spooning out the flesh.  I found it easier to bite into them and spit out the seeds–the skin is edible.

Pawpaws are far more nutritious than bananas, apples, and oranges.  They have a complete protein which is unusual for a plant food.  They also have a high amount of monounsaturated fat–the healthy kind.  Their sugar content provides a balance with the fat and protein, making them an almost perfect complete food.  They are extremely high in Vitamin C, magnesium pottassium, and other minerals and have a decent amount of B vitamins and calcium.  Pioneers living in the woods of North America could have subsisted entirely on pawpaws from late August to early October–the season ripe pawpaws are available.  Some pioneers homesteading in cabins within mesic woods wandered through great stands of pawpaw trees and gathered the fruit in baskets while out hunting for their family’s supper.  When they sat down to eat a supper of pawpaws, they were enjoying a fruit that may have been eaten by dinosaurs.  50 million year old pawpaw fossils, dating to the Eocene, have been excavated in Mississippi.  It’s likely pawpaws or a related species are older than that and predate the K-T impact.

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6 Responses to “Pawpaws, Favored Fruit of the Mastodons Part II”

  1. James Robert Smith Says:

    My dad was forever feeding me wild fruits and vegetables. A native and lifelong resident of Georgia, he seemed to know everything that was growing wild that was good to eat. I don’t remember eating pawpaws, though.

    Among the stranger things we used to eat was palmetto fronds. If you go into the bush and pull out the fronds, you can eat the very tips of the bases. The flesh there is tender, juicy, and delicious. Of course it’s quite wasteful since you only get a bite or two because anything above that very tender tip is far too woody to be eaten.

    You need to do a piece on maypops. We used to eat these when we lived in Macon Georgia and would tromp in the rural areas of Middle Georgia. That’s a wild fruit than I very much enjoyed. We used to eat a lot of those.

  2. markgelbart Says:

    That’s the same thing as hearts of palm which you can find in the canned vegetable section of the grocery store in case you miss the taste.

    I found maypops growing in the vacant lot across the street from my house a few years ago. I suspect they were also a favored food of the mastodons.

  3. Mike Says:

    their are still a few in west of Indiana that i know of i only found one tree with the green fruit and the tree is really tall so the only way to get that fruit is wait for it to fall down and thats what i had to do

    im not going to ask what did it taste like because i know it smelt good to me but i didn’t eat it because it was on the ground in the leaves and dirt now i wish i did take a bite just so ill quit thinking of it i have 5 seeds from the fruit i been needing help on how i should plant the seeds

    what i was going to do is put them in some dirt before winter time and then in the spring they should pop up is what im hoping for i wont put all 5 in the dirt probably 3 i hope this works well for me

  4. My Pawpaw Seeds Germinated | GeorgiaBeforePeople Says:

    […] […]

  5. Katie Walker Says:

    Hi — found your blog after googling pawpaws. I can’t wait to read more posts, I’ve enjoyed the few I’ve read so far. I am originally from Tifton and I was wondering if you knew the whereabouts of the pawpaw there — I’ve always wanted to try one too.


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