Discover Nature: Missouri's Pawpaws

Mar 14, 2021

There is a Midwest fruit as sweet as bananas and as fragrant as papayas. If you guessed “pawpaw,” you are correct!

Anyone who has whiffed the heady fragrance of pawpaws will not be surprised to learn that the family includes several tropical fruit trees. The Midwestern offshoot of the family has large, irregular oval leaves that would look right at home in a rainforest. Its distinctive reddish- to purplish-brown flowers blossom about the same time that morel (muh-rell) mushrooms sprout in April or May.

The pawpaw tree seldom grows taller than 20 to 30 feet and is usually found in the groves beneath larger trees; in rich, moist soil; on steep slopes; and in creek and river bottoms.

The fruits can be six inches long and nearly three inches in diameter. They are thin-skinned and have an abundance of large seeds. But the soft, fragrant yellow meat more than justifies the time spent spitting out seeds. When fully ripe, pawpaw meat can be scooped out of the skin with a spoon.

Pawpaw is a member of a tropical family and has no close relatives in Missouri. In nature, it’s associated with sweet gum, river birch, sycamore and roughleaf dogwood.

If you want pawpaws though, it pays to be on time. Raccoons, opossums, squirrels, coyotes, foxes and bears have an affection for this natural dessert. Some pawpaw pickers suggest getting ahead of the game. Instead of waiting until the fruits ripen and fall to the ground, try picking them while they are still slightly green and put them in paper bags to ripen.

More information about pawpaws Missouri can be found online at mdc.mo.gov.