SHREVEPORT, La. (KTAL/KMSS) — There may be a forgotten, ancient fruit ripening on your property this month that tastes like a mix of banana, mango and pineapple, descends from ancient seeds once scattered across North America in the poop of mastodons and attracts butterflies that look like flying zebras.
Fossilized pawpaw seeds date as far back as the Miocene epoch, which occurred 23 to 5.3 million years ago. The extinction of North American, fruit-eating megafauna, such as mastodons and megalonyx, left the fruit tree dependent mostly upon root suckers instead of seed distribution for reproduction. Before the death of the megafauna, the lima-bean-sized seeds had been scattered across North America in their feces.
A remnant of Miocene ecosystems, pawpaws are loved by the finicky zebra swallowtail butterflies, who will only lay their eggs on the emerging leaves of the semi-tropical tree. The black and white butterflies lay one egg per leaf, perhaps because pawpaw leaves contain a neurotoxin that animals like rabbits, deer and other leaf-eaters do not often eat. Zebra swallowtail caterpillars happily feed on pawpaw leaves and use the neurotoxin as a chemical defense agent against birds who wish to eat them. They form their cocoons beneath pawpaw leaves and spend their lives near the trees.
Pawpaw stats for history nerds
Extinct are the megafauna in North America, with the exception of perhaps some large bear species, capable of consuming and dispersing the lima-bean-sized seeds of the pawpaw tree, but there is a highly intelligent species capable of planting new pawpaw groves and, thereby, providing host sites for generations of zebra swallowtail butterflies.
The leaves of the pawpaw are large and oblong, dark green, and appear to droop from the branches of the tree.
The tree is the most northern and cold-hardy member of the custard-apple family and was cultivated by Native Americans for longer than written history has existed on this continent. Native Americans cultivated the fruits, ate them raw, made them into puddings, and dried them.
Algonquian peoples called the 15-30’ tall pawpaw tree assimin or rassimin, names similar in sound to persimmon, which led scientists to formally classify the fruit tree as “Asimina triloba.”
When Hernando de Soto (the namesake of De Soto Parish) was exploring the Mississippi River Valley region in 1541, his expedition observed Native Americans eating a fruit that was “growing through all the country” and described the fruit as having a “very good smell and taste.” The explorers named the fruit the “pawpaw” after the papaya, a fruit introduced to them by the Taíno peoples.
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both grew Pawpaws in their gardens at home.
On September 18, 1806, William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition wrote in his journal, “The party appear perfectly contented and tell us that they can live very well on the poppaws,” when the expedition ran almost completely out of supplies while still a significant distance away from the next outpost.
Pawpaw stats for plant nerds
Harvard University counts the Pawpaw as a North American native fruit species with commercial possibility. The roots of Pawpaw groves hold stream banks in place, preventing erosion, and the pawpaw is a shade-loving, understory tree that loves to be planted along waterways. It can also be planted in full sun, just so long as it is shielded from harsh afternoon rays until it is well established.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded study of thirty-four pawpaw cultivars, a large portion of the gene pool of cultivated pawpaws, can be found here.
Pawpaw flowers have a faint, rotting odor because they attract pollinators like flies and beetles instead of bees. The same can be said for magnolias.
The pawpaw tree has “unusual twig twistiness” and an unusual strategy that likely minimizes drag-induced damage in storms, according to the National Library of Medicine.
Want to buy a pawpaw tree?
If your search for zebra swallowtail butterflies hasn’t produced the results you hoped for on your property, don’t despair. You can plant pawpaws and attract the tiny, flying zebras to your home and enjoy a fruit that tastes like tropical punch, too.
You can buy the largest native fruit of North America at Louisiana’s Nursery, located at 12290 Mansfield Road in Keithville.
And don’t worry if your thumb isn’t a bright shade of green. Pawpaws are a great fruit tree for new gardeners.