If you’ve walked in Ohio woods, there is a tree you may not have known you saw.

This tree is an understory species, meaning it is rather short, content to grow under taller trees.

It grows in moist bottomlands.

Surprisingly, this tree is from a family of tropical trees.  It grows widely over the eastern half of the United States, and all over Ohio.

And, most surprising of all, this tree produces the largest edible fruit of any native North American tree.

This is the Pawpaw.

How does a tree get such a name?  It most likely derives from the Spanish papaya, a name for a New World tree that is superficially similar.

Here’s a stand of Pawpaws I saw in A.W. Marion State Park, tucked under the taller canopy trees above.  They are short, and have thin trunks and branches.  It’s easy to mistake them for saplings of a larger tree species, or even shrubs.  You often see Pawpaws in such clusters.

These clusters of Pawpaws are all interconnected by thick roots that spread underground.  These clusters are known as a clonal colony, since they are genetically the same tree.

Their leaves are long and clustered, and can easily be mistaken for Hickory leaves.  Note the thin branches.

Pawpaw fruit (Wikimedia Commons- Kurt Stuber)

Pawpaw fruit (Wikimedia Commons – Kurt Stuber)

The fruit grows in late autumn and is prized by both wildlife and humans.  Its flavor is often compared to custard or banana.  But don’t eat the seeds!  Founding Fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were big fans of this fruit.  Alas, it doesn’t keep long.

Speaking of flavor- although the fruit is popular, Pawpaw leaves are not.  At least to deer and most other wildlife.  This allows the tree to spread in the forest undergrowth due to the fact that deer nibble other more tasty trees around it, giving it lots of room.

Next time you’re walking in the woods, take a closer look at what is growing around you.  What you think are some shrubs might be a tropical-type tree that produces the biggest native fruit in America!