1. Q. Occasionally I see adds in garden catalogs for a type of fruit called a pawpaw. What exactly is a pawpaw?

The pawpaw is a small tree or shrub native to North America. The tree produces a fruit, also called a pawpaw. The fruit looks somewhat like a thick, short banana. The plant is found in the southern U.S. and as far north as Kansas, Michigan, New Jersey and western New York. Its leaves spread out in umbrellalike whorls, as do those of some species of the magnolia. However, when the leaves are bruised they give off a disagreeable odor.

The pawpaw grows from 10 to 40 feet high and bears fruit 2 to 6 inches long. The fruit has a greenish-brown skin. The yellow pulp is soft and sweet, but does not have enough taste to make it popular as a table fruit. The fruit falls to the ground in autumn and must be stored until ripe. It may be baked into pies, made into dessert, or eaten raw with cream as a breakfast food. When eaten raw it is cloyingly sweet with a custard-like flavor. Seemingly a taste for it must be cultivated because some consider it nauseating. The food value is largely carbohydrate. Handling the fruit is known to produce a skin rash on some people. Brids are fond of the fruit, and it is also eaten by gray fox, opossum, raccoon, and squirrel. The fruit has the same nutrient value as the banana.

Flowers of the Pawpaw are pollinated by flies. To insure pollination, road kill is often collected and hung in trees of commerical plantings to attract flies. The seeds of the Pawpaw contain an alkaloid, asiminine, which is reported to have emetic properties. The bark was once used as a medicine, and contains the alkaloid analobine. The wood of the tree is too soft and coarse to be valuable. The thin fibrous bark may be used in making fish nets. The American pawpaw belongs to the custard apple family, Annonaceae. It is genus Asimina, species A. triloba. It is usually an understory tree grown in bottomland areas of acidic soils and high rainfall.

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