Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The PawPaw
Nature Bulletin No. 68   June 1, 1946
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Clayton F. Smith, President
Roberts Mann, Superintendent of Conservation

The Chicago region is the botanical melting pot of central North America. We are near the western limit of the eastern flora, at approximately the southern limit of most northern trees, shrubs and other plants, and at the northern limit of many southern species. In the Indiana dunes area, for example, are found native white pines, tamarack bogs and other remnants which have persisted since the last glacier melted back -- about 25,000 years ago. In the meantime a number of southern plants have migrated north into the dunes and into Cook County. One of these is the pawpaw.

There are several medium-sized parent trees of this species and many young ones in Pawpaw Woods along Archer Ave. south of Willow Springs. There are a few in Black Partridge Woods northwest of Lemont. They prefer moist rich soils in the shade of larger trees, but rarely become more than 8 inches in diameter and 30 feet tall. Because they commonly send up many "suckers" from their roots, pawpaws usually grow in clumps or dense thickets. The bark is thin and smooth. The broad smooth leaves are from 10 to 12 inches long when mature.

The flowers are unique. About l l/2 inches in diameter, with six dark brownish-red petals and pale green sepals, they are beautiful when seen close-up. The fruits which develop from the flower, sometimes several in a cluster, are also unique. They ripen in the fall and resemble small bananas with a papaya-like flavor. The thin smooth skin becomes yellow, mottled with brown. The flesh is very soft, fragrant and sweet -- too sweet. Embedded in it are several dark brown seeds about the size and shape of a lima bean. Some have white pulp and some have yellow: insipid or sickening to some people but relished by many, especially small boys and Indians. A few are allergic and suffer from an itching rash after handling or eating one.

The wood of the tree is so spongy and weak that it has no commercial value but its rich foliage, its beautiful flowers and its unusual fruit make it both interesting and decorative.

The finger-sized suckers make good whistles. All in all, it is the Small Boys' Tree.

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