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Pawpaws are a native fall fruit that taste delightful

If you have never eaten a pawpaw, try this tasty, fall fruit. While the pawpaw, Asimina triloba, is the largest tree fruit native to the United States. It is the northernmost representative of its family of tropical and sub-tropical plants.

People have described its taste as similar to a banana with a hint of strawberry, while others say it tastes like a banana with hints of peach and citrus. All I can say is that it tastes like a tropical fruit that I can grow in my backyard. The fruit has a wonderful creamy texture and makes a great custard or cream pie, or eat them fresh out of the skin.

This tree is native to the woodlands of the eastern United States and can be found from eastern Texas to the Great Lakes and over to the Atlantic coast. It is hardy to -25 deg. F or USDA Climate Zone 5. Pawpaws grow in full sun to partial shade and like moist, deep well-drained soils. Typically, they grow from 12 to 20 feet tall and have a slight conical shape. Root suckering can be a problem if trees are not maintained properly.

This deciduous tree has large oblong drooping leaves that can reach 12 inches long but are usually in the 8 to 10 inch range. These big daggling leaves do not like our strong prairie winds, so plant trees where winds will not damage their leaves.

These trees bloom in the spring with velvety, dark maroon petals. The flowers on my trees are about 1.5 inches across and are not pollinate by bees, but by flies. Each flower has several ovaries and this explains why one flower can produce several fruits.

As I mentioned before, the pawpaw is the largest edible fruit native to America. Individual fruits weigh from five to 16 ounces and are 3 to 6 inches in length. The fruit usually has 10 to 14 seeds in two rows. These seeds are a very dark brown, with a length of around one inch and resemble a stretched lima bean. Newer cultivars of pawpaws have increased the percentage of fruit to seed from 75 percent in the wild to 95 percent fruit in the latest releases (Shenandoah™; Wabash™). When ripe, the fruit is soft and thin-skinned.

In our area, pawpaws ripen during the month of September. When ripe, it is soft and yields easily to a gentle squeeze, and has a pronounced light tropical fragrance. The skin of the green fruit usually lightens in color as it ripens and often develops blackish splotches, which do not affect the flavor or edibility. The yellow flesh is custard like and highly nutritious as well as quite delicious.

The nice thing about pawpaws is that they are relatively disease free and pest free. The Zebra Swallowtail butterfly is a beautiful black and white butterfly whose larvae feed exclusively on pawpaw leaves and cause very little damage to the tree. However, wildlife love to eat the ripe fruit when it falls to the ground. Despite this fact, the pawpaw does make a great edible landscape plant for the yard.

When you get an opportunity to try this exotic fruit native to Illinois, please do not let it pass by without tasting it. I really think that you will like it.