What is Pawpaw?

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  • Written By: wiseGEEK Writer
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 09 October 2019
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A pawpaw is a fruit indigenous to North America, also called the sweetsop or the prairie banana. Though the name may have originated from the Spanish term papaya, these two fruits are not related. The trees that grow the pawpaw are the largest Native American fruit trees, ranging in height from 16 to 32 feet (5.44 to 9.75 m).

The deciduous pawpaw tree blooms in early spring. The small flowers are deep violet in color. Following the spring blooming, leaves begin to sprout that appear almost out of place in their native environment. They are dark green and shiny, resembling the leaves of many tropical plants, though they turn golden in fall. The tree is often chosen for landscaping because deer tend to avoid eating the leaves.

The fruit itself can grow in clusters or alone. A pawpaw ranges in size from 2 to 6.5 inches (5.08 to 16.51 cm) in length, with an average diameter of 1 to 2 inches (2.54 to 5.08 cm). Unripe fruit is light green in color, but turn to a yellow-brown when fully ripe.


Most pawpaws are pollinated by blowflies, which sometimes make them unattractive to would be cultivators. Those who have pawpaw farms generally put rotting meat near the trees to increase the number of flies and thus increase the output of the tree. Beyond the proliferation of flies, the tree does not have many natural predators. However, some growers still find the cultivation of the flies repugnant. Though native to North America, the pawpaw does not enjoy the popularity of other fruits, though more organic gardeners are considering developing orchards because they are low maintenance.

There are detractors and supporters of the pawpaw, as well as multiple interpretations of what the fruit tastes like. Some people compare the taste to a cross between vanilla and bananas, while others think it more resembles a mix of banana and mango. Others find the taste, whatever it may be, boring. Some people liken the creamy texture of the fruit to rich custard.

The pawpaw contains more protein than most other fruits and can also be used as a fat substitute in recipes for muffins and cakes. Emphasis on healthy eating may inspire more to choose the pawpaw because of its high protein to sugar ratio. Various recipes suggest using it in smoothies, cakes, chiffon pies, and ice creams. There is even a recipe for wine made from the fruit.

Some investigation of the pawpaw has led to a belief, not substantiated by significant evidence, that it may have cancer-fighting properties. Native Americans used the leaves and bark to treat scarlet fever. The leaves are slightly toxic, so it may be best to leave this treatment well alone. Some people have difficulty digesting the fruit, moreover, so one may want to try these with care at first.


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