Discovering the North American Pawpaw Tree

Fruit of the North American pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba) in the author's pawpaw patch. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford

Fruit of the North American pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba) in the author’s pawpaw patch. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford

By Richard Telford

The powerful forces of forest succession threaten always to engulf the 18th-century stonewalls that surround our 1770 center-chimney farmhouse. During the restoration of the house, we largely gave up trying to stem the encroachment of the surrounding forest. However, several years ago, we began in earnest to work to control that encroachment, in great part due to an alarming increase in the number of Lyme ticks in our yard, which resulted in two of our three children being positively diagnosed with Lyme disease. Reducing moist, shaded areas along the edge of a yard through tree cutting, in conjunction with short-cropping the grass and the removal of leaf litter and other detritus, is a critical component in the war on Lyme ticks (Ixodes scapularis) that has become critical to country living in the northeastern United States. I have previously written about the Lyme disease crisis—a word I don’t use lightly.

This past spring, I began cutting back saplings, creating a ten- to twenty-foot buffer along the outer edges of our stonewalls. At the same time, I began clearing and grass-seeding the inner buffer of the wall that separates our front yard from the road. When I first bought the house in 2003, I had noticed a small stand of trees along that wall that looked to be some kind of tropical ornamental that could survive New England winters. This seemed likely, given the line of Japanese maple trees (Acer palmatum) that lined the eastern edge of the yard. The stand on the south road-edge featured alternate broad leaves as long as sixteen inches stem to tip. They seemed conspicuously out of place amidst the maples, hickories, oaks, birches and elms that, along with eastern white pines and hemlocks, define the surrounding forest. Though I had often intended to identify this tropical oddity, I had not done so by this past spring. In the effort to clear the front wall, I began to cut the stand down, and, at the same time, began limbing an adjacent venerable eastern white pine, also a major shade source.

In the spring of 2014, to celebrate the arrival of our third child, a friend had given us a gift certificate for the annual native plant sale offered by the Eastern Connecticut Conservation District. As we mulled over the catalog choices, a particular fruit tree caught our attention, the North American pawpaw (Asimina triloba), which was purported to produce a fruit similar in appearance to bananas but with a flavor and texture more akin to mango. We were intrigued and initially decided to buy a bucket sapling. We reconsidered, however, for two reasons. First, owing to years of successional encroachment, we lacked a light-sufficient, open space in which to plant it. Second, the catalog noted that pawpaw flowers produce an odor similar to that of rotting meat. With conjured visions of a tree that mimicked, albeit on a smaller scale, the most famous of the “carrion flowers,” Titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum), we were reticent to plant one too close to our house and opted instead for a group of native butterfly attractors.

In both the foreground and the background, young pawpaw saplings rise near the trunk of a mature tree, demonstrating the pawpaw's tendency to reproduce quickly, forming large patches. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford

In both the foreground and the background, young pawpaw (Asimina triloba) saplings rise near the trunk of a mature tree, demonstrating the pawpaw’s tendency to reproduce quickly, forming large patches. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford

Fast forward to the early summer of 2015. Having cut about half the trees of the unidentified exotic stand along our front wall, I began to rake out the carpet of leafy detritus and natural mulch that had built up beneath them over decades, unearthing the fragmentary evidence of former property owners: assorted canning jar fragments and several rusted lids, old nails, an 80s-vintage orange foam Big Mac box, assorted hardware encrusted in rust, and, most interesting of all, a faded but still-legible plastic plant nursery tag that offered the life history of and planting tips for the pawpaw tree. The light went on. Gathering a handful of brown, nickel-sized seeds scattered among the leafy debris—mystery seeds that I had noticed every fall but never investigated—I went in the house and completed a quick Google image search for “pawpaw seeds.” With that first search confirming what I expected to see, I completed subsequent searches: “pawpaw leaf,” “pawpaw flower,” “pawpaw bark,” each subsequent search adding additional confirmation. We were the proud owners of a substantial pawpaw stand, more commonly referred to as a pawpaw patch, half of which I had just cut down.

John James Audubon's rendering of a male and female yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) in a North American pawpaw tree.

John James Audubon’s rendering of a male and female yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) in a North American pawpaw tree.

Despite my own ignorance of the pawpaw as a native North American tree, according to an article by José I. Hormaza, published by the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University, its presence in North America was documented as early as 1541 by a member of the De Soto expedition. Hormaza likewise notes that members of the Lewis and Clark expedition relied almost entirely on wild pawpaw fruit for subsistence over several days in September of 1806. In his book Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit, Andrew Moore writes of the cultivation of pawpaw trees by several Native American tribes in the pre-Columbian era, noting that tribe members “carrying seeds in satchels rather than their stomachs” likely replaced the traditional dispersal of pawpaw seeds by then-extinct prehistoric megafauna. John James Audubon, in The Birds of America (1827-1838), features the yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) in the context of a detailed rendering of an insect-damaged pawpaw tree with a cluster of overripe fruit. Hormaza likewise notes that Thomas Jefferson cultivated pawpaw trees at Monticello and even sent both seeds and plants as official ambassadorial gifts to France in the late 18th century. Still, the pawpaw, as suggested by Andrew Moore’s book title, seems largely to have fallen victim to obscurity in the American public consciousness. So perhaps it should not be surprising that I could step out my front door for thirteen years, look directly at our pawpaw patch, even admire its downward-facing crimson flowers in spring, and remain ignorant of its natural history. Still, I am a bit surprised given my predilection to wanting to be able to identify the species of all kinds that occupy our woods.

A pair of pawpaw fruit deep within the branches of mature tree in the author's patch. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford.

A pair of pawpaw fruit deep within the branches of mature tree in the author’s patch. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford.

This summer, with our pawpaw patch thinned and the pine boughs that once shaded it cut back, the more mature of our trees have produced a respectable fruit crop. As I write this, it is still too early to harvest them, but we are eager to do so in mid to late October. They certainly produced fruit in other years, as evidenced by the seeds we would turn up in our fall raking, yet never once did we notice the fruit that followed the spring flowering. This is certainly due in part to the color of the fruit being, at least in our specimens, nearly identical to their leaf color. Even now, with our new awareness, it takes careful looking to see most of the fruit. Still, our failure to see the fruit of previous summers is also just as certainly a product of the fact that we as human beings, collectively speaking, often simply do not see what we are not looking for. And I am reminded in all of this that our minds can always be more open, our senses keener, our curiosity stronger. Natural history writer Edwin Way Teale, in his 1937 book Grassroot Jungles, notes, “Among the tangled weeds of the roadside or in the grassroot jungles of your own back yard, you encounter strange and incredible forms of life.” He later notes, “The more we know, the more we see; our adventures increase with knowledge.” When we are suddenly struck by our lack of such knowledge, as I was with my “discovery” of our pawpaw patch, we can be critical of our own ignorance, or, instead, we can be grateful for the rich and unquantifiable range of knowledge that is offered to us by the natural world. I choose the latter.

Lyme Disease, Public Health, and the Conservation Movement

A blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis) removed from the authorthe primary vector for Lyme Disease.  This tick was removed

A blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis), the primary vector for Lyme Disease. This tick was removed from the author during the completion of this story. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

By Richard Telford

In the fall of 2013, our five-year-old daughter complained of soreness in one of her wrists.  We asked if she had banged it or taken a fall.  She said no.  Comparing the wrist in question to her other one, we realized that the swelling was bilateral.  The lack of an obvious cause of injury, in conjunction with an observable sense of malaise in an otherwise energetic child, raised alarm bells for us.  We promptly asked her pediatrician to order a test for Lyme disease; several days later, the test came back positive.

Lyme disease is caused by Borrelia burgdorferi, a bacterium transmitted through the bite and subsequent engorgement of its primary vector, the blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis), also known as the deer tick. Immediate symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue, and, sometimes, what is commonly called a “bull’s-eye rash” at the site of the bite.  Untreated, the disease can infect the joints, heart, and central nervous system, causing an array of serious and debilitating symptoms.  Early treatment with doxycycline is effective in most cases, but in 10- 20% of treated cases, serious symptoms can persist in affected individuals for several years or more.  Commonly called Chronic Lyme, the Centers for Disease Control terms this condition Post-Treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome, or PTLDS.  The existence of PTLDS, which is largely attributed to residual tissue and immune system damage, has been the subject of great controversy, and I plan to write about this controversy in a later post on The Ecotone Exchange.

According to the CDC, in 2012, the most recent year for which statistics are available, our home state of Connecticut had 1653 confirmed cases of Lyme disease and an additional 1004 probable cases, with an incidence rate of 46 cases per 100,000 population.  The CDC further reports that Lyme disease is “the most commonly reported vectorborne illness in the United States,” which is striking in that 95% of Lyme disease cases were reported in only 13 states in 2012.  Even more striking is the fact that the earliest cases of Lyme disease, 51 in total, were first reported in 1975, only 39 years ago.  In a 1976 letter to Connecticut’s regional and local directors of health, State Department of Health Commissioner Douglas S. Lloyd noted that 51 residents of Old Lyme, Lyme, and East Haddam Connecticut had been diagnosed with a form of arthritis characterized by “short and mild but often recurrent attacks of pain and swelling in a few large joints,” as well as “fever, headaches, weakness and a skin rash […].”

The Commissioner went on to note that “seasonal and geographic distribution of cases and the association with a skin lesion suggest that a virus carried by a biting insect may be responsible for this disease.”  However, until researchers could “isolate an infectious agent,” Lloyd cautioned, “Any other action taken now to prevent contact with an unknown virus carried by an unknown insect would disrupt the community far more than is warranted by the facts.”  There could be no sense at that time that the occurrence of this mysterious disease would rise meteorically in the coming decades, spiking to a high of 29,959 confirmed cases in the United States in 2009.  It is important to note, too, that these statistics almost certainly represent a significant underreporting of actual cases in the United States for a variety of reasons, which the CDC itself acknowledges.

In the spring of 2012, the Connecticut Audubon Society held a series of four public panel discussions in which they asked panel experts and audience members to answer the following question: Where is the next generation of conservationists coming from?  As a professional educator and CAS volunteer, I was invited to sit on one of these panels.  At the center of the discussion was the fact that children today spend considerably less time directly interacting with the natural world, especially in unsupervised exploration.  Reasons posited for this included the influence of personal communications devices and social media platforms, over-programming of extra-curricular activities in children’s lives, the lack of well developed environmental science curricula in many schools, and fear in various forms—fear of abduction, fear of animal attack, fear of injury, and, most pertinent here, fear of Lyme disease.

A group of blacklegged ticks (Ixodes scapularis), collected from the author and his family.  These ticks are the primary vector for Lyme disease.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

A group of blacklegged ticks (Ixodes scapularis), collected from the author and his family. These ticks are the primary vector for Lyme disease. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

The proliferation of Lyme disease has serious long-term implications for the conservation movement that mirror its serious long-term implications for public health.  This is especially true in the northeastern and upper midwestern states, where it is not hyperbole to characterize the proliferation of Lyme disease in these regions as epidemic.  In the 72 hours leading up to the submission of this essay, I removed one imbedded blacklegged tick from our two-year-old son’s ear, two from my leg, one from my stomach, and a number of others from our and our children’s clothing.  Blacklegged ticks are ubiquitous and can often imbed themselves and transmit the Borrelia burgdorferi spirochete undetected.  In spring, summer, and fall, thorough nightly tick checks are a necessity in our family, yet we fear we are instilling in our children the notion that the natural world is a hostile place rather than a welcoming one, a place of danger rather than a place of solace and rejuvenation.  Children who grow up fearing the natural world have little incentive to help conserve it.

Eight months after my daughter’s treatment for Lyme disease, she shows no signs of being in that 10-20% of the Lyme-affected population with persistent, recurring symptoms. Her initial test results suggested an early diagnosis, and we are hopeful that this was the case. Along with that hope, though, we are plagued with a persistent fear—that, in the act of immersing our children in the natural world that we ourselves love so much, we must also subject them to the onerous and potentially long-lasting symptoms of an unseen and virulent disease carried by a likewise unseen host.  This is a fear with which the conservation movement needs to come to grips.  It cannot be dismissed or minimized.  It must instead be openly acknowledged and addressed through increased, proactive education on prevention, identification of signs and symptoms, and treatment of Lyme disease. This must be done both for the benefit of public health and for the benefit of the natural world itself.