When my grandparents first started farming back in their younger days along the Missouri River bluffs, their new farm used to be an old orchard, but the folks were dirt farmers and were not too interested in spraying fruit trees every year.

When my grandparents first started farming back in their younger days along the Missouri River bluffs, their new farm used to be an old orchard, but the folks were dirt farmers and were not too interested in spraying fruit trees every year. So, my granddad removed all of the fruit trees that were taking up space on level ground so that he could grow corn, wheat, and alfalfa for the livestock.

However, he left the trees down over the hills and hollers. So, if you could beat the birds to them, there was always something to eat down there in the woods when I was a lad growing up. There were apple trees, plums, pears and the largest, juiciest peaches you’ve ever eaten. There were cherry trees and gooseberries, blackberries, raspberries and boysenberries. All of those things ripen at different times of the season, so there was always something to eat if you just went looking for it.

In the fall of the year I loved the pawpaw, which ripens over about a six week period during September and early October. The hidden fruit, as it is sometimes called, can still be found everywhere along the river bluffs. When ripe, they are very sweet and tasty, but are quite bitter if you pick them too early. Even though they are in the apple family, we always called them Missouri bananas, because their taste and consistency resembles a very ripe banana, only much richer. In fact, they are so rich it’s hard to eat more than one or two.

The reason we don’t see them on the grocery store shelves is because they have a very thin skin and bruise easily and so are next to impossible to pack and ship. Besides, they only have a shelf life of 2 or 3 days once they ripen, and they have a double row of very large round seeds, about the size of a Lincoln penny.

The Pawpaw is not really native to Missouri; they originally came from Kentucky and Tennessee. Across the centuries, the Native Americans who came before us took great advantage of the Pawpaw and carried the seeds as they migrated westward and pretty well spread them around the country where the climate would allow them to grow. They have to have a certain number of frosty days, but too many winter nights keep them from thriving across the northern states. They are also sensitive to low humidity and dry winds, so you don’t see them out west.

In fact they’re picky; they don’t like direct sunlight either, so they grow best in groves down through the woods. Indeed, we have a lot of timberland in which they can flourish. The Pawpaw is not a big tree; they never get more than about 15 or 20 feet tall at the most. They have beautiful, large, floppy, tropical looking leaves, and with their rather small thin tree trunks, they resemble an umbrella. The thin bark has fibers underneath that the Indians stripped out to make fish nets.

As I write this article, several universities and colleges are studying the pawpaw, trying to perfect it so that we can maybe someday be able to purchase them in grocery stores. Because a pawpaw contains three times more vitamin C than an apple, 14 times more niacin, three times more potassium, and 10 times more calcium, with just a few extra calories. They are loaded with antioxidants and are the only fruit that provides all essential amino acids. And, not so much the fruit, but the pawpaw plant itself, has shown great promise as a cancer fighter, too.