Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere


By Scott Sheu

Asimina triloba

Indiana Banana, Hoosier Banana, Poor Man's Banana, Custard Apple

Often confused with the custard apple and papaya, which is also sometimes called the “pawpaw,” the pawpaw tree bears the largest native fruit in North America and the only member of the tropical Annonaceae family to grow in this part of the world.  The pawpaw has a long history in the United States; it was apparently enjoyed by George Washington, and sustained Lewis and Clark on their journey.  During the Great Depression, the pawpaw was also frequently consumed as a substitute for other fruits and were thus called the “poor man’s bananas” (Bales).

Geographical Description

            The pawpaw is native to eastern North America and grows from northern Florida to southern Canada and as far west as the Midwest.  They typically grow in forested areas, where they can be found in the understory by riverbeds (New Crop).  The fruit of the pawpaw was a component of American Indian diets; indeed, the Shawnee even had a “pawpaw month” dedicated to the fruit in their calendar (Austin).  The fruit was often etymologically confused with the papaya by Europeans and early settlers, and also showed a discrepancy of names.  The first mention of the pawpaw dates to Hernanado de Soto’s 1540 Mississippi expedition, where a fellow traveler noted the fruit being cultivated by American Indians (Staub). 

            Though the pawpaw continued to be an important fruit in the North American diet, interest waned after World War II with the introduction of other fruits.  Nowadays, most pawpaws are sold at farmer’s markets; it is difficult to find them in larger commercial markets because of their short shelf life.

Botanical Description

            Pawpaw trees tend to be smaller (less than 30 feet high) and often grow in patches.  They are tropical in appearance, with long, dark green, drooping leaves that can stretch up to a foot long and .5 feet wide.  When grown in the sun, they often assume a pyramid-like shape.  The pawpaw’s small flowers have three lobes and are a dark brownish maroon color when mature.

            The large fruit of the pawpaw is somewhat bean-shaped and reach up to 6 inches in length.  The smooth skins ripen from a soft green to a bruised-looking yellow and grow in clusters on the trees.  Their flesh is yellow, custard-like, and fragrant.  The flowers and fruit have a fragrance that is objectionable to some, who compare it to the scent of “rotting meat” (Staub).

Culinary Description

            The pawpaw fruit has a pungent aroma and a very sweet taste, somewhere between banana, pineapple, and pear.  Because of its wide range, the pawpaw found its way into many American Indian diets.  It is believed that the American Indians planted and cultivated the pawpaw.  The Iroquois mashed the fruit into small, dried cakes or dried the fruit by itself.  The dried cakes were sometimes soaked in water and used as a sauce or mixed with cornbread (Moerman).  Lines of large, dark seeds run down the center of the pawpaw.  The fruit has also been recorded as central to Algonquian, Siouan, and Osage diets.

            Pawpaws are usually eaten raw by peeling away the skin and discarding the seeds, but can also be used in breads, sweets, ices, and as a substitute for mangoes or bananas.  It has also been used to make liquors (Austin).

Other Usages

The Cherokee used the bark of the pawpaw to make ropes and string, which were used to string fish (Moerman; Austin).  Tribes have used the seeds as a powder to deter head lice.



Austin, Daniel F. Florida Ethnobotany. Boca Raton (Fla.): CRC, 2004. Google Books. Web.

Bales, Stephen Lyn. Natural Histories: Stories from the Tennessee Valley. Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 2007. Google Books. Web.

Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Ethnobotany. Portland, Or.: Timber, 1998. Print.

New Crop. "Pawpaw." Purdue University. Web. <>.

"Pawpaw Fruit Facts." California Rare Fruit Growers. Web. <>.

Staub, Jack E. 75 Remarkable Fruits for Your Garden. Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith, 2007. Google Books. Web.