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A community driven journalism project where listeners get to ask the big questions: who, what, when, where and why. Under Rocks host(s) will attempt to get to the bottom of these unexplored oddities, neglected anomalies, and little-known place-makers of our region.

The Pawpaw: America's Platonic Banana | Under Rocks Podcast

Susan Stephens

The pawpaw has its own national holiday (3rd Thursday of September), several festivals in its honor (The Ohio Pawpaw Festival is the biggest), nicknames (Indiana Banana, for one), a kiddie sing-a-long song (Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch!), and towns named in its honor (Paw Paw, Illinois, Paw Paw, Michigan). So why is this superstar of native American fruits such a mystery? Sounds like a case for the Under Rocks team!

Your first encounter with pawpaws was probably by way of a traditional folk song:

Pickin’ up pawpaws, put ‘em in your pocket,

Pickin’ up pawpaws, put ‘em in your pocket,

Pickin’ up pawpaws, put ‘em in your pocket,

Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch!

That pre-school favorite wheedled its way into the ears of generations of kids. But outside of parts of Appalachia, that pawpaw you pretended to pick up and put in your pocket wasn’t much more than a funny word. Was it even real?

Susan Stephens
Austin Cliffe shares his pawpaw knowledge in this edition of Under Rocks -- and at the Ohio Pawpaw Festival.

Of course it’s real. It’s a long-leaved understory tree that produces a soft tropical fruit right here in the middle of America. Ice Age mammals like mammoths and giant sloths planted the fruit’s large dark seeds the way animals like to spread seeds. Native Americans cultivated groves, George Washington enjoyed his pawpaws chilled, and the wild fruits sustained the Lewis and Clark expedition during a rough patch.

Asimina triloba has a great history, but what about pawpaws today? Well, you won’t find this fragile fruit in supermarkets. You’ll have better luck at farmers’ markets, or a handful of festivals, or by befriending a backyard grower… or growing your own.

Late August to early October is pawpaw season, so start hunting before the window closes. And check your local nurseries while this forgotten fruit appears to be making a comeback – why not start your own patch of this glorious, messy All-American fruit?

You can download Austin Cliffe's guide to growing pawpaws from seed here.

Thanks to Austin Cliffe, Jenna Dooley, Dan Libman, Spencer Tritt, David Tallacksen, Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco, and Barb and Rob for their expertise and/or enthusiasm in this episode of Under Rocks.

If you have an idea you'd like us to explore in an upcoming episode, drop us a line at rocks@niu.edu!