Pawpaws are Ozarks’ native tropical fruit
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Most people in the Ozarks are likely familiar with traditional folk tunes about picking pawpaws, “way down yonder in the pawpaw patch.”
Where that pawpaw patch may be and what a pawpaw is is often lost after the lyrics are recited?
“Pawpaws may be the best Missouri native fruit that you have never eaten,” says Dr. Pam Duitsman, nutrition specialist with MU Extension. “The pawpaw is the largest edible fruit native to the United States.”
Pawpaw native trees are often found in well-drained, fertile bottom-land and hilly upland habitat. Pawpaw fruits have a sweet, custardish flavor somewhat similar in texture to banana, mango, and cantaloupe, and are commonly eaten raw.
Historically, pawpaws were eaten by Native Americans, settlers, and adventurers like Lewis and Clark. Pawpaws were planted by George Washington at Mt. Vernon, and by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. They grow wild in the Ozarks and much of Missouri.
Harvest time for pawpaws is from August and October in Missouri, depending on the cultivar and weather.
Pawpaws are oval, similar to a mango, and have a mottled green exterior, with lima bean-sized black seeds. The mature pawpaw will likely be between 3-6 inches long, with yellowing skin as the fruit ripens, just as they are about to fall off the tree.
In time, the fruit brown much like an overripe banana. Ripeness can be determined in similar ways to that of a peach – by the softness of the fruit, and the pleasant aroma. To eat, just cut in half, peel the thin skin away and scoop out the seeds with a spoon.
“Pawpaws are very nutritious, containing three times as much vitamin C as an apple, and twice as much as a banana,” said Duitsman.
Pawpaws are also good sources of magnesium, iron, copper, manganese, potassium, riboflavin, niacin, phosphorus and zinc; and are higher in protein than most fruits, containing all of the essential amino acids. A whole pawpaw contains about 80 calories, 1.2 grams of fat, and 2.6 grams of dietary fiber.
“Pawpaws also contain phytochemicals in the phenolic and flavonoid families – thought to promote health and help prevent disease,” said Duitsman.
Specifically, procyanidin (in the flavonoid family), has strong antioxidant activity and has been correlated with reduced risk of coronary heart disease and mortality in recent research studies.
“Although this amazing, local tropical fruit is healthy and delicious, you will not find it on grocer’s shelves. Currently, there are not enough growers of pawpaw to provide the quantity needed to sell retail,” Duitsman explains.
A potentially bigger barrier to grocer access is that pawpaws are highly perishable, do not ship or travel well, and only last a few days at room temperature. If refrigerated, a pawpaw may keep up to three weeks. The flesh of the ripe fruit can be pureed and frozen for later use.
“If you want to get back to growing local and honoring the heritage of Missouri foods, try growing pawpaws. They grow well in the local climate, have few pests, and are relatively carefree. Grown from seeds, plants can begin bearing fruit within five years.
Consider the pawpaw varieties Shenandoah, Susquehanna, Overleese, Sunflower, and PA Golden, all of which have performed well in research trials at the University of Missouri Southwest Research Center.
Patrick Byers, MU Extension horticulture specialist, recommends planting at least two trees or varieties for cross-pollination. Byers and others are featuring pawpaws at Fall Field Day held at the University of Missouri Southwest Research Center on Saturday, Sept. 9.
For more information on nutrition contact any of these nutrition specialists in southwest Missouri: Dr. Pam Duitsman in Greene County at (417) 881-8909; Lindsey Gordon Stevenson in Barton County at (417) 682-3579; Stephanie Johnson in Howell County at (417) 256-2391 or Mary Sebade in Dallas County at (417) 345-7551. The regional office of the Family Nutrition Education Program is located in Springfield and can be reached at (417) 886-2059. Nutrition information is also available online Extension.Missouri.edu.