Last month, I told you about a study showing men and women who ate more fruit had a much lower risk of developing Type II diabetes. Plus, those who already had Type II diabetes at the study’s outset had much better blood sugar control if they regularly ate fruit.
So, today, I thought I’d discuss pawpaw, a delicious fruit native to North America. And if you’re craving something sweet after dinner, it makes for a perfectly healthy treat.
Indeed, the fruit resembles custard. And it tastes like a refreshing combination of cantaloupe, mango, banana, and melon. It’s even been called the American custard apple. (In addition to a host of other names including the Hoosier banana, Indian banana, Quaker delight, and West Virginia banana.)
Shaped like a mango, the fruit has several large seeds shaped like lima beans. And the “custard” center is rich in minerals, including copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphate, potassium, and zinc.
The pawpaw tree (Asiminia triloba) is native to the southeastern U.S. You can also find it as far west as Nebraska and as far south as Florida, with roots up the East Coast through North Carolina to New York.
Pawpaw trees reach maturity at 15 to 20 feet and can continue growing to 30 to 40 feet. They often form thickets or groves through their expanding root systems.
Plus, since the trees are native to North America, the fruits are naturally resistant to local pests and don’t require agricultural chemicals for cultivation.
Long history in North America
The first written description of pawpaw came from a Portuguese officer with the Spanish expedition, which explored the southeastern United States, led by Conquistador Hernando de Soto in 1541.
The fruit continued to enjoy much popularity in the U.S. for hundreds of years.
In fact, George Washington planted pawpaw trees at his home in Mount Vernon, Virginia, so he could regularly enjoy the fruit. He considered chilled pawpaw his favorite dessert.
Thomas Jefferson also worked on its cultivation in Virginia and shipped pawpaw seeds to his friends in France, where he had served as U.S. Minister in Paris. And members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition lived on pawpaw during their travels into the Louisiana Purchase and Pacific Northwest.
But then — with the advent of refrigeration and the commercialization of food sales, pawpaw’s popularity began to decline. The fruit doesn’t travel well and has a short shelf life. It will only last one or two days at room temperature. So, you must eat it almost immediately upon picking.
Nevertheless, pawpaw has always retained a kind of folk following in America.
I vividly recall a popular children’s song during the late 1950s and early 1960s:
“Pickin’ up pawpaws/Put ‘em in your pocket/….
Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch”
There are towns named after pawpaw in Kentucky, Michigan, Oklahoma, and West Virginia. I’m pretty sure I saw one of the locks and tunnels on the historic Chesapeake and Ohio Canal named Pawpaw, way out near the end of the canal.
Today, you can commonly find pawpaw as a supplement extract. In addition to its rich vitamin and mineral content, pawpaw has been commonly used in homeopathy to treat fever, vomiting, and inflammation of the throat and mouth. It’s also been shown to benefit cancer patients and help with weight loss, but more research is needed.
To my amazement, pawpaw is also starting to gain a grass-roots following. And the farm-to-table movement has embraced the fruit as well. In Montgomery County, Maryland — where I used to live — they now host an annual pawpaw festival. You can even buy planting seeds online.
Of course, if you live in the southeast U.S., you can still find pawpaw growing in the wild. And, as this past Tuesday was the first day of spring, it’s just about to come into season.
“The Pawpaw, a Forgotten North American Fruit Tree,” Arboretum (arboretum.harvard.edu) July 2014