Paw Paw – Fruit Tree Native to Tennessee

ARS pawpaw
Paw Paw Tree Fruit

In my quest towards helping our woods become healthier, I’ve been trying to cull trash trees that might be choking out the natives.  Last summer, I came across these large-leafed, tropical looking trees.  They were growing in colonies along the wetter portions of our land — ravines and lowlands along creeks.  I was worried that they would shade out the native trees.

I’ve since learned that they are native and I’ve been prejudiced against them because of their “tropical” look, which in fact they get by being related to magnolias.

Last summer, I first started cutting down the saplings and flagged others that were too difficult to get to with all the summer vegetation, but then it occurred to me that I really did not know what the trees were.  Only now have I taken the time to research it and I’ve learned that these trees are Paw Paws — a native understory or woodland edge tree that grows to 25 feet tall and 15 feet wide, as individual trees.

Pawpaw fruits
Paw Paw Fruit

At first, the jury was still out on whether I want to keep them.  Some sources said that they are a “good” tree (presumably because they are native), but other Paw Paw sources said:

Pawpaws should gain in popularity because deer tend not to eat them. While they will eat the fruits which have fallen to the ground, it is thought that the unpleasant smell the stem emits when it is damaged keeps the tree from being palatable to deer. In fact, in certain areas along the C and O Canal, botanists feel that it is becoming a weed, taking over places that used to have a wide variety of species, but where seedlings of other trees are being gobbled up by deer, leaving the pawpaws to thrive.

The Ohio Division of Natural Resources Division of Forestry has a good write-up on the Paw Paw.  Among other things, it says:

  • One tree often gives rise over the course of decades to a sprawling colony via its root system, which suckers several feet away from the parent tree.
  • It is prized for its delicious fruits that mature in late summer.
  • As a member of the Annona Family, it is related to other species of Pawpaw as well as other genera in this family (all tropical or subtropical in origin) and distantly related to the Magnolias and Tulip tree.

But the following information might be swaying me to keep the trees (taken from an orchard site that sells Paw Paws for retail.  I have a soft spot in my heart for folk lore plants:

The Paw Paw is a true native American fruit tree indigenous to the entire eastern half of America, from Texas to the Great Lakes and down the east coast to Florida. The Paw Paw is rarely seen and hardly known by recent generations, but was a household name for the pre-baby boomer generations. Many old and now forgotten folk songs were sang praising the Paw Paw. Being the largest edible fruit native to America, the Paw Paw is worth singing about and has found some resurgent interest in the past 20 years.


Another Paw Paw source shares:

In the book, Sturtevant’s Edible Plants of the World, one finds the Pawpaw fruit called “…a natural custard, too luscious for the relish of most people. The fruit is nutritious and a great resource to the savages.” Millspaugh, in American Medicinal Plants, describes the fruit as “soft, sweet and insipid, having a taste somewhat between that of the May-apple and the banana, tending to the former.”

OK.  I am going to keep them.  Nothing else is growing there anyway.

11 thoughts on “Paw Paw – Fruit Tree Native to Tennessee”

  1. I enjoyed reading this. My grandfather has property on the Tennessee-Kentucky border and he has Paw-Paw trees. I know from experience how tasty they are. Thanks for the pleasant read.

  2. Not to rain on your parade, I’m somewhat surprised that anyone would cull a woodland tree without knowing what it was! Suppose you had a colony of the rarest trees in the planet and you chopped them all down? I live in Europe now, but I used to live in a cabin in the woods of East Tennessee and remember the paw paw well. We had a huge one over our cabin and it offered much-needed shade in the summer. It’s a very pretty tree and the fruit is delicious, tasting like vanilla ice cream. In fact, it makes wonderful deserts, like ice cream, or a fool, beaten with cream or custard. Raw, it’s good with a squeeze of lime. I certainly observed deer eating them and racoons and possums gorged on them – it was lovely to see. Paw paws helped fatten up many creatures against the famine of winter. One further thought: since they grow wild and presumably have done for thousands of years, surely they shouldn’t need controlling? They’re part of the bigger picture. Nature sorts itself out if left alone. PS Some of my happiest times were spent hiking Tennessee trails, and I very much enjoy reading about your adventures.

  3. Rose, you are right. I was premature in cutting them down. I’ve since learned.

    Where are you living in Europe and what took you away from East Tennessee? The Military?

    Thanks for sharing!

  4. I also enjoyed your article, eventhough, I dislike cutting down trees for no good reason. I advocate letting Mother Nature, or our Creator manage forests. You are obviously a very intelligent and nice person, and I’m so glad you took the time to learn more about the Paw Paw trees and stopped cutting them down.

    I’m originally from East Tennessee and now reside in Northern Arizona. I was just reading another article about Paw Paw fruit and thought I remembered Paw Paws in Tennessee. I did a search and stumbled upon your article.

    The article I was reading:
    lists some other names for this fruit tree, i.e., Soursop, Graviola and Guanabana. It grows prolifically in the Amazon Rain Forest, and is known best for its extract, which cures many types of cancers. It actually seeks out cancer cells and kills them, without damaging healthy cells. If you know of someone with cancer and want to recommend this alternative treatment, make sure you read everything on the link, including the comments from readers.

  5. I am on a Pawpaw quest! I have had this tree on my mind to add to my garden for the last few years, and want to encounter one so badly. I live in Maryville, TN and I suppose it’s entirely possible to find one in the woods here, but it’s so overgrown, I’m just not sure. I can’t find a local nursery that sells them. I would love so much to just taste one! I love Norris…. trout fished there quite a bit (before my sweet girls were born). 🙂

  6. You were cutting down paw paws! Ack! I’m glad you stopped! I did the same thing with volunteer native passionflower until I sprouted some purchased seeds myself and realized that all those little seedlings I’d been tearing out of my pots were the passionflowers I’d been wanting–Mother Nature was *really* puzzled by me, I’m sure.

    I’ve wanted a tree so badly. I had two for a few years but this past winter I left the little seedlings outside in their pots again and the worst happened. From now on, I’m going to plant directly in the ground in the woods. From one East TN resident to another, would you be willing to mail some moist seeds this fall??? I’d happily pay for them.

  7. April, if you are still looking for Pawpaws, I have a few trees and they will be ripe before long. I live close to Carthage, TN. If you are along Hwy. 70 anytime soon in Chestnut Mound, you are welcome to take all you wish.

  8. Hi there,
    I stumbled upon this post because I’m moving to Colorado with my significant other. We love the south but It’s time to move so we’ve created a Southern bucket list so we never forget what we are leaving. Pretty high on the list at this point is to find a Pawpaw tree and try one before we leave. Anyone here know were a few trees that we could get access too?

  9. I am a sucker for heirloom varieties of any plant or livestock but have ALWAYS been completely in love with wild foods. As a tiny child you’d find me scavaging the palmetto forest for young shoots to eat and later climbing the trees for foxgrapes, in the field digging up sorrel, pulling pine sap and nuts off the trees; l aged my mom when she found me at age ten armed with a library book eating the things l only identified half an hour ago. When l got married l moved to the old house my husband grew up in which sits on forty acres in TN. At age 19 could survive in the swampland of FL quite comfortably with nothing but a knife and my knowledge of the wilderness but now l felt like l was on another planet. Some of the plants were the same, l explored the woods and found some mulberry, wild grape, and sorrel, then quickly learned to identify the abundant blackberries, daisies, and walnuts. But l have been too busy having children and tending to domesticated plants to truly learn much. I found a wild pecan tree in the backyard and was annoyed when my husband said he’s never known it was there (it is clearly older than the house and he lived here 12 years before l joined him), then that fall found two permission trees growing along the driveway which he’d also been oblivious too (“Don’t you people ever look up??”). Now our oldest son is expressing the same interest in foraging that l had and we often go on long walks through the woods together where l teach him how to identify the plants. But, alas, l being an alien in this land, though l know more than his native father, l am largely inadequate for teaching him about these woods. In the spring we took a walk deeper than usual to a creek out of the property and there l found a tree with crazy burgundy flowers that looked like roses made of paper, we took a branch home to identify it and were delighted to discover it to be of the paw paw tree. Now knowing what to look for we began searching our part of the world and found thirty, many of which are quite large and full of fruit. It is amazing to me that my husband never spent a late summer day eating these fruit despite living so close to an abundance of the trees. Simply he did not know about them and never cared to learn. I have always been told a little knowledge goes a long long way and know that when my son and l are tramping through this forest seeing what we can catch or pick that l, though l know so little, am instilling much knowledge in him that my generation nearly completely lost and his has little chance of inheriting. This to me is nothing short of tragic.

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