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Central Standard

Pass The Pawpaw: Foraging For Missouri's Banana

Gina Kaufmann
KCUR 89.3

You know how sometimes you stumble across a word you've never heard before in your entire life, and then suddenly, the word is everywhere? That happened to me with the pawpaw.

I was born and raised in Missouri, so discovering in my thirties that a random fruit with a made-up-sounding name is considered my state's own banana? That came as a shock (though, to be fair, it's also known as the Indiana banana and the West Virginia banana). 

Curious about the fruit, I convinced Ruth Farrand-Cox to take me foraging for pawpaws along the trails of Burr Oak Woods. She leads a volunteer group called the Wild Ones, teaching about wild edibles at the nature center, and everyone I talked to agreed she was the expert. 

It was an unseasonably hot September day, humid and buggy, and the woods are dense, making the trails feel more remote than they are. We had to double back on our tracks a few times, but finally, I saw with my own eyes that this mango-like tropical fruit does, in fact, grow wild on Missouri trees.  

It's still green and unripe this season, meaning the fruit is camouflaged by the leaves around it. You have to know where to look, and even so, you have to look closely. 

Pawpaw stats:

  • Aliases: American custard apple, Missouri banana
  • It's the largest edible fruit native to the United States
  • The tree bearing pawpaw fruit is most commonly found near streams
  • The blossoms of the pawpaw tree smell "like spoiled meat"
  • The pawpaw fruit has a short shelf-life; it lasts a few days at room temperature, a week at most in the fridge
  • Pawpaws are higher in protein and fat than common fruits like bananas, apples and oranges
  • This fruit is a source of vitamin C, potassium, calcium, riboflavin, niacin and manganese
  • The texture of the raw pawpaw is like that of a custard
  • The pawpaw tastes like a combination of banana and mango, with a hint of melon
  • The seeds are purported to foretell winter weather, according to folklore
  • Lewis and Clark ran out of food at around the time they reached Missouri, where they survived on pawpaws and nuts
  • George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were early fans of the pawpaw; Jefferson sent seeds to France to show off the abundance of North America

Sources for pawpaw stats: Ruth Farrand-Cox of Burr Oak Woods Nature Center, Bo Brown of First Earth school in Rogersville, Mo., Ohio University's Office of Research Communications, and Kentucky State University Cooperative Extension Program.

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.