Also known as false banana, pawpaw apple, custard apple, custard banana, poor man’s banana, banana tree, Indiana banana, Nebraska banana, hoosier banana, Michigan banana, and white plum, some Native American tribes cultivated the pawpaw for fruit and are responsible for its widespread range today. The Cherokee and many other tribes used the pawpaw fruit for food.
The fruit, which is the largest edible fruit native to America, is high in amino acids. The leaves contain anticarcinogens.
Opossum, raccoon, foxes and squirrels eat the fruits. Larvae of the lovely Zebra Swallowtail butterfly (Eurytides marcellus) feed exclusively on the leaves.
This perennial tree or shrub grows from 10 to 40 feet tall. Leaves are aromatic, with a smell reminiscent of bell pepper. Inconspicuous but interesting flowers (4 to 5 cm in diameter) with 3 sepals, are green upon opening and turn to dark purple or maroon in color, usually in April or May.
The large fruits (5 to 16 ounces) ripen between August and October. Fruits have a thin skin, which contain a yellow custard-like pulp that is said to taste like papaya. Some varieties contain a whitish-green pulp that is less flavorful. Fruits contain several flat 2 cm long seeds. The deciduous leaves turn bright yellow before dropping in the fall.
Our area in southwest Michigan represents the most northern range of this native tropical fruit.
Pawpaws grow in humid climates and are highly frost tolerant. They grow in the shade in open woods usually in wet, fertile bottomlands, but can grow in upland areas on rich soils. Pawpaws occur as understory trees in oak-hickory forest in the midsouth where they are found in clusters or thickets.
At least two plants are needed for cross pollination.
Speed of Growth: Moderate.
Moisture Requirements: Wet to moist.
Light Requirements: Full sun to part shade. (Fruits best in full sun.)
Wildlife Benefits: Fruit is an excellent food source for small mammals. Host to Zebra Swallowtail butterfly.
Additional Benefits: Unusual edible fruit with a banana-like flavor and avocado consistency.
Michigan Native: Yes.