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.