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Common Pawpaw Asimina triloba


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Common Pawpaw - fruit
credit: Scott Bauer, USDA ARS Photolibrary

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Family: Annonaceae, Annona view all from this family

Description The pawpaw is native to the Midwest, Southern and Eastern United States and adjacent southernmost Ontario, Canada, from New York west to eastern Nebraska, and south to northern Florida and eastern Texas. The pawpaw is a patch-forming (clonal) understory tree found in well-drained, deep, fertile bottom-land and hilly upland habitat, with large, simple leaves and large fruits, the largest edible fruit indigenous to the United States.

Asimina triloba is a large shrub or small tree growing to a height of 11 meters (rarely to 14 m) with a trunks 20-30 cm or more in diameter. The large leaves of pawpaw trees are clustered symmetrically at the ends of the branches, giving a distinctive imbricated appearance to the tree's foliage.

The leaves of the species are simple, alternate and spirally arranged, entire, deciduous, obovate-lanceolate, ten to twelve inches long, four to five inches broad, and wedge-shaped at the base, with an acute apex and an entire margin, with the midrib and primary veins prominent. The petioles are short and stout, with a prominent adaxial groove. Stipules are lacking. The expanding leaves are conduplicate, green, covered with rusty tomentum beneath, and hairy above; when fully grown they are smooth, dark green above, and paler beneath. When bruised, the leaves have a disagreeable odor similar to a green bell pepper. In autumn the leaves are a rusty yellow, which make spotting pawpaw groves possible from a long distance.

Pawpaw flowers are perfect, about one to two inches across, rich red-purple or maroon when mature, with three sepals and six petals. They are borne singly on stout, hairy, axillary peduncles. The flowers are produced in early spring at the same time as or slightly before the new leaves appear, and have a faint fetid or yeasty smell.

The fruit of the pawpaw is a large, yellowish-green to brown berry, 5–16 cm long and 3–7 cm broad, weighing from 20–500 g, containing several brown seeds 15-25 mm in diameter embedded in the soft, edible fruit pulp. The conspicuous fruits begin developing after the plants flower; they are initially green, maturing by September or October to yellow or brown. When mature, the heavy fruits bend the weak branches down.

Other characteristics:

Calyx: Sepals three, valvate in bud, ovate, acuminate, pale green, downy.
Corolla: Petals six, in two rows, imbricate in the bud. Inner row acute, erect, nectariferous. Outer row broadly ovate, reflexed at maturity. Petals at first are green, then brown, and finally become dull purple or maroon and conspicuously veiny.
Stamens: Indefinite, densely packed on the globular receptacle. Filaments short; anthers extrorse, two-celled, opening longitudinally.
Pistils: Several, on the summit of the receptacle, projecting from the mass of stamens. Ovary one-celled; stigma sessile; ovules many.
Branchlets: light brown, tinged with red, marked by shallow grooves.
Winter buds: Small, of two kinds, the leaf buds pointed and closely appressed to the twigs, and the flower buds round, brown, and fuzzy.
Bark: Light gray, sometimes blotched with lighter gray spots, sometimes covered with small excrescences, divided by shallow fissures. Inner bark tough, fibrous. The bark with a very disagreeable odor when bruised.

Warning The fruit, though edible, can cause skin irritation and gastrointestinal upset in some individuals.

Habitat Cities, suburbs & towns, Grasslands & prairies.

Range Southeast, Mid-Atlantic, Texas, Plains, Florida, Great Lakes.

Comments This is a good understory tree. No serious disease or insect problems. The fruit can create a mess on sidewalks and patios, but this can be minimized by planting only one tree; pawpaws seldom set much fruit without cross pollination.

Exposure Preference Shade.

Flower April - May

Native Distribution Florida to Texas, n. to w. New York, s. Ontario, Michigan, Illinois, s.e. Iowa & s.e. Nebraska

Site Preference Rich, moist woods; lowlands

Soil Preference Rich, moist, slightly acid soils.

Wildlife Value Small mammals relish the fragrant fruit which tastes banana-like.