Ozarks banana. Hillbilly mango. American custard apple.
It’s been called by many different names, but the tropical-like pawpaw is now officially known as Missouri’s state fruit tree, thanks to a successful lobbying campaign by a group of fourth-graders who learned a civics lesson in the process.
“This project started during the presidential election in 2016,” said Mary McDevitt, who teaches at New City School, a private elementary school in St. Louis. “We study government in fourth grade, and we decided hold our own vote to elect a new state symbol for Missouri. I brought in some pawpaws from my backyard for the kids to try, and they got so excited and wanted to put it on the ballot.”
“The irony is that the pawpaw didn’t win in the school election,” McDevitt added with a laugh. “The kids voted to name the Labrador retriever as the official state dog.”
But McDevitt and her fellow pawpaw proponents weren’t ready to accept defeat, convinced the idea was worth pursuing outside the classroom. They started writing letters regularly to their state legislators, calling for the pawpaw to be named Missouri’s state fruit tree.
Their persistence paid off. The cause was eventually endorsed by Karla May, who was then state representative for the St. Louis district that included New City School. May was elected to the state senate in 2018 and brought the pawpaw bill with her. As the legislation made its way through the system, some of the students even had an opportunity to testify before the Missouri House of Representatives and several committees in support of their bill. McDevitt said it was an “incredible experience” for everyone involved.
After a two-year process—during which the fourth-graders turned into sixth-graders—the bill was passed by the state senate and signed into law by Gov. Mike Parson in July 2019. McDevitt, May and several of the students were on hand for the signing ceremony.
“Our focus for social studies is ‘citizens making a difference,’ and we learn how we can advocate for ourselves and our communities,” McDevitt said. “This was a way to put those lessons into action. The students really saw how government works, what it takes to pass a bill and why it can take so long for us to see change in our society. That was a huge takeaway for all of us.”
Interestingly enough, the bill also designated the hellbender salamander as the state “endangered species,” to raise awareness about its alarming decline in numbers. The pawpaw and salamander joined the list of more than two dozen state symbols, including a state tree (flowering dogwood), state animal (Missouri mule), state dessert (ice cream) and state amphibian (American bullfrog).
The law gives the pawpaw much-deserved and long-overdue prominence, said Patrick Byers, University of Missouri Extension horticulture field specialist, who has extensively studied the fruit’s potential during his nearly 30-year career in advising Show-Me State farmers.
“The pawpaw is one of those hidden gems of Missouri,” Byers said. “There is a core group of aficionados who’ve known for decades what a wonderful fruit this is, but certainly the designation last year really raised the consciousness in the public’s mind. People are looking for interesting, unique experiences and place-based foods. What could be a better example than pawpaws?”
Native to midwestern, southern and eastern areas of North America, the pawpaw is the only temperate member of the tropical Annonaceae family, which also includes the custard apple, soursop and cherimoya. Seldom reaching heights taller than 20 to 30 feet, the pawpaw tree grows in colonies and can often be found in creek and river bottoms, at the base of wooded bluffs, in ravines and valleys, or in the understory beneath larger trees.
“Pawpaw trees are widely found across Missouri, and when you start to look for them, you can definitely find them,” Byers said. “They like rich soil and moist areas, so that’s why you frequently see them growing along streams and rivers.”
Pawpaw fruit is now in season, typically ripening anywhere from August through October. The fruits can vary in size but typically are about 6 inches long and 3 inches in diameter. Their thin, greenish-yellow skin hides a soft, fragrant, yellow center with a creamy, custardy texture. The tropical taste is often likened to a banana, pineapple or mango. When fully ripe, pawpaw pulp can be scooped out of the skin with a spoon.
Because of the fruit’s highly perishable nature, pawpaws are usually not found in stores and only occasionally at farmers markets. Most of the time, the best way to enjoy them is straight from the tree. Pawpaws can only be kept two to three days at room temperature or about a week if refrigerated. The pulp can also be removed from the skin and frozen for use in recipes. Pawpaw is often substituted for banana in baked goods and desserts such as muffins, breads, cookies and pies, Byers said.
“It’s hard to describe the flavor, but pawpaws are just delicious, and it also has a somewhat unique texture that’s unlike other fruits,” he said. “You can also make some fabulous products with it. For example, I worked with a restaurateur near Springfield to supply his restaurant with pawpaw, and he made this most amazing pawpaw ice cream. He said it was wildly popular.”
Pawpaw production may be an untapped enterprise for farmers, Byers said, and MU Extension has some long-term projects under way looking at possible uses and agronomic considerations for growing these native fruit trees on a commercial scale.
“We’re always looking for crops that might be profit centers for our farmers, and I think pawpaw is one of those crops,” Byers said. “We can certainly grow it in Missouri. In fact, we can grow it very well. But before a farmer jumps in and plants a pawpaw orchard, they need more information. We are working to answer some basic questions related to profitable pawpaw production.”
As for finding wild pawpaws, Missouri Department of Conservation Naturalist Alex Holmes offered some advice and caution to would-be fruit foragers during a virtual presentation on Sept. 3. While pawpaws grow in many parks and conservation areas, regulations may prohibit picking fruit, he warned, so check before you collect. He also encouraged pawpaw pickers to only take what they plan to use.
“Pawpaws are enjoyed by Missouri wildlife, too,” Holmes said. “You don’t want to steal food from the bears and raccoons—they rely on this, too. We can go to the store and buy mangoes, but they can’t.”
Holmes also offered tips on how to tell whether pawpaws were ready for harvest. A ripe pawpaw will be soft, similar to an avocado. A pawpaw picked too early can be placed in a paper bag to ripen, he said.
“One thing that I like to do is walk through the woods like a gorilla and shake the trees,” Holmes said. “When the pawpaws break off the branches and fall to the ground, you know they’re ripe. You’ll know right away when you open up a pawpaw and smell it. When they are unripe, there’s a dirty-dishwater sort of smell to them. Ripe pawpaws, on the other hand, have a wonderful, fruity smell.”
For those who have never tried pawpaw, now might just be the perfect time find out what all the fuss is about, Byers said.
“Pawpaw has a lot going for it. It really does,” he said. “We just need to further share the story of pawpaws, both with farmers and consumers. There are so many people excited about the pawpaw now, and it’s gratifying to finally see this unique, native, locally grown fruit gain so much attention.”
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