How to identify a pawpaw tree?

Pawpaw

  • Indentification
  • Range
  • Habitat
  • Harvest
  • Uses
  • Where else can you find pawpaws?
  • TL;DR: Pawpaws at a glance

The wild pawpaw. Asimina triloba. Largest North American fruit. One with as many aliases as Billy the Kid — Bandango, Indiana Banana, Poor Man’s Banana, or simply Paw Paw.

An indescribable cross between banana, mango, pineapple, and whatever fruitarian delicacy you might not be able to imagine. The thing forager dreams are made of. My nemesis.

Until now. The elusive pawpaw eluded me for years. I would happen upon pawpaw trees as I paddled southern Appalachian whitewater. I would see them along riverside trails as I hiked the foothills. I would spot them on the roadside at 45 mph from the driver’s seat of my Tundra. They were something that I noticed. Like the kind of car you drive that seems to be everywhere once you own one.

Great. Except they were always bare. I could never lay my eyes on a single fruit. My timing was never right. Or I never found a fruiting tree (more on that below). Whatever the reason, they entered my consciousness only to taunt me.

Then, one fortuitious August morning, I saw it on Facebook. A photo posted by a friend — his first pawpaw harvest. So I called to beg for a chance to get some photos and possibly a taste. It was finally within reach.

A day later, after chasing the wild pawpaw from ivy-choked bottoms of the Appalachians, through lazy creeks of the Piedmont, to placid canebrakes of the Coastal Plain, I tamed my nemesis in a North Carolina suburb. Not so wild after all.

Me: 1
Pawpaw: 0

Eric Bandango Wrangler. That day, anyway.

Identification

Pawpaw Fruit

Depending on region, pawpaws are ready from the end of August through October and the season lasts about 30 days. In our region, they’re ripe in August.

Pawpaws are normally three to six inches long, sort of kidney-shaped, and they grow in clusters like bananas. They start off green (often with black spots) and turn yellow, brown, and then purplish black.

They get super-soft and fall off the tree when they’re fully ripe but they can be shaken off when they’re close to being ripe.

Pawpaws have a distinct floral or fruity smell which alludes to the sweet flesh that lies beneath the skin. The skin, which is not eaten, is thin but tough and bruises easily — it’s a quality that usually gets blamed for the pawpaw’s failure to achieve commercial status in modern markets.

The light yellow flesh inside is mushy and tends to ooze out of the skin when you cut a pawpaw open. It’s not a fruit that you just take a bite of.

Pawpaw fruit cut open

Pawpaws sometimes have a slight bitterness about them that’s caused by a thin layer of phenolic compounds that lies between the skin and the sweet flesh. Simply scrape away that layer to avoid the bitterness.

The fruit is also loaded with largish dark brown, toxic seeds that get in the way of spooning out the good stuff. I believe the best way to eat a pawpaw is to just suck it out of the skin. Or scoop it all into a bowl and then separate the seeds.

Pawpaw seeds

The flavor reportedly varies from tree to tree and even fruit to fruit. It’s been compared with bananas, mangos, pineapple, and any combination thereof. The texture is somewhat like a mango without all of the stringiness, often referred to as “custardy”.

A bit of caution, though: Pawpaws make some people nauseated after eating them. Some have reported that illness ensued immediately, while others say it took eating a second pawpaw some time later.

In Andrew Moore’s book Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit, Jim Davis of Deep Run Pawpaw Orchard says that pawpaws can be emetic when underripe or overripe.

Maybe all the folks who get sick are just victims of bad timing? Either way, as with any wild food you’ve not eaten before, maybe just try a little at first.

Pawpaw Trees

Pawpaw trees generally don’t get more than 40 feet or so tall and they commonly appear as small shrubs. Asimina triloba is the most prominent species, but there are a few others that occur in various subregions of the pawpaw’s range. Some are dwarf versions, growing only four or five feet high (more species listed below).

The pawpaw spreads primarily by sending out runners or suckers, often forming dense thickets of clones that are barren because they lack the genetic diversity necessary to produce fruit.

I had a friend who spoke of the pawpaws that took over his yard. He finally just took them all out. It’s something I have a hard time imagining.

Pawpaw Leaves

The leaves are alternate, smooth, and wider at the tip. They can be up to 20 inches long.

Pawpaw leaves

Pawpaw Flowers

Pawpaw flowers appear in early spring as beautiful blossoms that smell disgusting. They’re pollinated by carrion flies which are attracted by the distinct scent of rotting flesh.

Some pawpaw growers even hang chicken skins and other foul (get it?) attractants in their orchards to draw in the pollinators necessary for setting fruit.

The flowers are about two inches across and have three outer petals and three smaller inner petals — they can be white, purple, or maroon.

Pawpaw flowers

Range

Pawpaws grow naturally as far west as Texas, north to Canada, and throughout most of the midwestern and eastern U.S.

NRCS/PLANT database pawpaw range map

Habitat

Pawpaws thrive in wettish areas like river bottoms but, according to the National Park Service, their range has expanded into higher and drier forests in recent years.

They attribute the spread partly to deer foraging habits.

The theory is that, since deer populations are unnaturally high in many areas and since they don’t like pawpaw leaves, the deer are more prone to browse the tastier plants that grow alongside pawpaws, like spicebush and maple.

In doing so, deer eliminate the competition and make way for pawpaws to effortlessly move into new areas.

Throughout the pawpaw’s range, it normally occurs as an understory tree, hidden from view in the shade of taller trees, which is one reason the pawpaw is not such a well-known fruit even where it’s native.

Like most fruit trees, though, pawpaws are much more productive in the sun, while the naturally growing trees in the shade of forest tend to be less likely to bear fruit. That, coupled with the fact that so many pawpaw thickets are essentially groups of non-fruiting clones sharing the same DNA, pawpaw fruit can be really hard to find in the forest.

But in some regions, like Florida and south Georgia, pawpaws are commonly found growing in full sun along the edges of pastures and fields, thriving in drier, well-drained dirt. These trees are more likely to bear fruit.

Harvest

The trick to getting pawpaws is timing. Once you’ve located a productive tree, you’ll need to be vigilant about checking it for ripe fruit.

You’re competing with raccoons, possums, squirrels, and any manner of fruit eating animals that share habitat with pawpaws, and once the fruit is ripe, it falls off the tree. Like avocados, it’s a game of “wait, wait, wait, too late”. It’s rock-hard until it’s not and then it departs the tree with a disastrous thud.

Uses

I would say the most common use for pawpaws is just gorging on them right from the tree.

Desserts like ice cream and pudding are great for pawpaws. Basically, anything you can do with persimmons, you can do with pawpaws.

Pawpaw bread is another popular way to eat the fuit.

And apparently feremented pawpaws in the forms of beer, cyser, mead, and brandy were favored by our founding fathers.

Stay away from pawpaw fruit leather, though. For some reason, it causes severe nausea, even though some Native American tribes traditionally used dried pawpaw to make pemmican. They seemed to have figured out something in the processsing that made them safe to eat. Please let me know if you figure that out or know something about it.

Where else can you find pawpaws?

In season, you might be able to find pawpaws at a farmers market.

I was lucky enough to find a local farm this season that sold pawpaws they harvested from wild trees on their property. They also sold “pawpcicles” made by a local popcicle company called Locopops (or check them out on Facebook).

You can also order pawpaws fresh or frozen online but expect to pay hefty shipping for the fresh fruit. Here’s one vendor: https://www.earthy.com/

Pawpaws at a Glance

Latin and common names:

  • Asimina triloba (pawpaw, paw paw, bandango, Indian banana, poor man’s banana, Hoosier banana, custard apple)
  • Asimina incana (woolly pawpaw)
  • Asimina longifolia (slimleaf pawpaw)
  • Asimina obovata (bigflower pawpaw)
  • Asimina parviflora (smallflower pawpaw or dwarf pawpaw)
  • Asimina tetramera (four-petal pawpaw)

Leaves: 5 – 20” long, smooth, widest at the tip.

Fruit: End of August through mid-October, depending on region, 2-4 inches long, oblong or kidney-shaped, growing in clusters like bananas.

Starts off green, then progresses to yellow, brown, and purplish-black. The colors indicate various degrees of ripeness, but green to yellow seems to be when most prefer to eat it.

The soft flesh is yellow with a custard-like texture and a flavor that is described as a combination of mango, banana, and/or pineapple.

The fruit contains several large, toxic brown seeds.

Flowers: 2 inches across, 3 outer petals, 3 smaller inner petals. They bloom in spring and can be white, purple, or maroon.

Tree: A few feet to 40 feet tall.

Habitat: Rich, wet, shady areas like river bottoms but can also occur in well-drained soil in full-sun.

Original Comments

Below, we have included the original comments from this blog post. Additional comments may be made via Facebook, below.

On September 25, 2009, randomguru wrote:

Amazing! That’s the first time I’ve ever seen a pawpaw, or a pawpaw tree for that matter, thanks for sharing it through your video. I’ll definitely have to search around in my area to see if I can find a tree somewhere.

On September 25, 2009, janevan13 wrote:

We have them in MO too!

On September 25, 2009, kimberleemac wrote:

Wow that is so cool. I live in North Carolina and last year went to a native plant sale and purchased two baby paw paw trees and planted them in my property. I learned how over a hundred years ago they were everywhere in coastal NC, but because of logging and development, they are rare to find. I also learned they were an important crop for the local indians back then. I’ve never eaten one or seen a paw paw fruit so it was treat to watch your video. It actually resembles a sapote or cheramoya on the inside, which I’ve eaten and they are really sweet. I can’t wait till mine grow up! Thanks for sharing!

On September 26, 2009, 3crows wrote:

Ha! So thats the tree that I smell when I run past my neighbours yard (here in Silver Spring MD) in the mornings at this time of year. I have wondered what it was for the past couple of years. It smells so sweet and when they fall and the insects eat them the whole area is rich and fruity smelling for a few weeks. I thought they were inedible ornamentals – well guess what – I’m off to harvest (with their permission) as many as I can today. They don’t seem to eat them and I would love to know what a Paw Paw tastes like.
Thanks Jim

On September 27, 2009, Shelley (from Pittsburgh) wrote:

Hey, this is fabulous!!! I never knew anything about pawpaws and will now be on the lookout. Thanks for sharing such wonderful information. Congrats on the “find”!

On September 29, 2009, andrea wrote:

My mom has trees in her yard in Brooklyn, NY. She planted them many years ago. She has too many of them, and doesn’t know what to do with them all. No time to dry, etc.

On September 30, 2009, Venox6625 wrote:

Say, I live near Paw Paw Michigan! Do you think they named their city in honor of the Paw Paw tree? Worth a try to find out. Maybe Paw Paw Michigan is loaded with them! Hee! Hee! I’m off to Paw Paw!

On July 30, 2010, enzymeluv wrote:

I missed this one! I am happy to know that you found a worthy paw-paw tree … psss, keep this tree to yourself 🙂

This wild fruit is worth tracking down.

If you’re lucky, America’s best secret fruit might be growing on a tree close to your backyard. Or perhaps a county or two away. Finding it takes effort, but it’s rejuvenating effort. Tromping around in the woods seeking pawpaws makes me feel more a little more human, and the pawpaw’s enticing taste is only one of its rewards. What begins under a leafy canopy ends in your kitchen, with untold culinary possibilities.

What Are Pawpaws, Anyway?

Pawpaw trees, the largest edible fruit trees native to North America, produce greenish-blackish fruit, usually three to six inches long. The flesh is pale to bright yellow and contains a network of glossy, dark brown seeds. A pawpaw’s flavor is sunny, electric, and downright tropical: a riot of mango-banana-citrus that’s incongruous with its temperate, deciduous forest origins. They also have a subtle kick of a yeasty, floral aftertaste a bit like unfiltered wheat beer. “The flavor of pawpaws is forceful and distinct,” writes culinary historian Mark F. Sohn diplomatically in his encyclopedic book, Appalachian Home Cooking.

A pawpaw is a homely, unassuming thing on the outside; it’s possible to unwittingly pass a tree laden with half a dozen of the things. But let’s say you notice the pawpaws, and reach for a ripe one. The best way to enjoy a pawpaw is right there in the woods, tearing into it as if you had claws. Rip the skin away, slurp the pulp, and spit out the seeds. It’s a gooey, sensuous, primal experience. You have now eaten from the tree of earthly knowledge, and guess what? It tastes really damn good.

Pawpaws grow from the Great Lakes down to portions of the Florida Panhandle. The members of the Lewis and Clark expedition ate pawpaws for pleasure, and, for a period in Missouri in 1806, subsistence. John James Audubon depicted yellow-billed cuckoos on a pawpaw branch. Our early American ancestors enjoyed pawpaws for centuries, spreading them as far west as Kansas. In 1541, the expedition of conquistador Hernando de Soto recorded Native Americans growing and eating pawpaws in the Mississippi Valley. And even though they had to clear pawpaw trees to create farmable land, white settlers savored pawpaw fruit—often the only fresh fruit available nearby. There are towns named Paw Paw in Michigan, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma (Mid-Atlantic and Midwest states make up the pawpaw hot zone.)

But the more industrialized our country became, the less relevant pawpaws were. Pawpaws have had some public-awareness issues. An abundance of folksy nicknames, for one: Hoosier banana, Indian banana, custard apple, Quaker delight. That pawpaw means papaya in other parts of the world does not help any, either. (Despite Baloo’s “Bare Necessities” shout-out in the Disney version of The Jungle Book, pawpaws are unrelated to papayas.)

But currently there’s a groundswell, a pawpaw renaissance. The small but enthusiastic pawpaw community encompasses both professional and amateur growers, and it culminates at gatherings like the Ohio Pawpaw Festival, a laid-back event now in its 16th year, where family hula-hooping workshops and presentations on pawpaw propagation balance out a robust beer garden and music stage. Festival-goers queue up for free samples of pawpaw ice cream, a sweet and tasty introduction to the enticing possibilities of pawpaw cuisine.

Here’s the catch: easy-bruising pawpaws have a short shelf life and don’t currently fit in the business model of big agriculture. A scattered network of academics and horticulturalists are researching to see if that could change, if someday a growing and marketing strategy could make pawpaws an enticing new product in the produce aisle–the next POM Wonderful. Whatever the case, the far-flung, diverse, and loosely affiliated pawpaw scene is an exciting place to be right now. To be part of it, all you have to do is taste.

How to Get Your Hands on Pawpaws

Your options are grow, buy, or forage. Pawpaw trees are great for landscaping, and a grafted tree may bear fruit in two years, but they can be tricky. Growers of pawpaws don’t tend to be run-of-the-mill people. They’re analytical, curious, a bit eccentric, and often generous (I have never had so many swift and sweet responses to an email as my pawpaw query to the California Rare Fruit Grower’s Society did.)

Let’s assume you can’t wait for fruit to grow. Ask around at your local farmers market if you’re in the Midwest or Mid-Atlantic regions, where the odd dozen or so pawpaws may show up around September or October. It’s not cheap, but you can have fresh pawpaws shipped to you in season, and frozen pawpaw pulp year-round. The specialty foods company Earthy Delights says that requests for pawpaws have gone up every year since NPR first aired a story about them in 2011. You can also go directly to the source and contact Albany, Ohio’s Integration Acres, “the world’s largest pawpaw processor.” Founded in 1996, they use both their own pawpaws and ones from other growers and gatherers in the region, selling both frozen pulp and mixed-fruit ‘pawpaw pops.’

By far the most fun way to get pawpaws, though, is to take to the woods and pretend you are a hunter-gatherer. I found my first pawpaws accidentally, while hiking within city limits of the Southeast Ohio town where I live. A ripe pawpaw lay squashed in the middle of the trail, revealing its bright yellow interior. I glanced up, spotted more pawpaws well within my reach, and unexpectedly entered into a torrid feral fruit love affair.

Pawpaws at the peak of ripeness simply fall from the tree, whereupon they get smashed and icky. So the key is to pick almost-ripe pawpaws, the ones whose stems break off with no resistance from the branch. They’ll have a little give under the skin, like a perfect peach. The fruit on a pawpaw tree won’t ripen all at once; the ideal pawpaw spot is one you can return to easily and often.

Let’s say that’s not the case. Don’t freak. Some pawpaws are better than no pawpaws. This is edible natural history of North America. Just go with it.

How to Drink Pawpaws

When fresh fruit fails, seek beer. Pawpaw-flavored craft beer is a dynamic little pocket of the pawpaw world, and it’s perhaps one of the most accessible ways to bring pawpaws to the people.

Jay Wince is president and head brewer at Weasel Boy Brewing in Zanesville, Ohio. They brew the Weasel Paw Pawpaw Pale Ale, an English-style pale ale flavored with pawpaw pulp. Like most brewers making pawpaw beers, they source foodservice-size buckets of frozen pawpaw pulp from Integration Acres. At Weasel Boy, they add the thawed pawpaw after fermentation to create a secondary ferment before filtering. “People look forward to it,” Wince says of his pawpaw ale. A floral and yeasty brew with an unmistakable pawpaw finish, it’s available on tap and in kegs only from May through September. “Unless you go to a specialized place, you’re not going to just run across fresh pawpaws,” he continues. “There are an awful lot of people from here who’ve never seen or heard of a pawpaw. They say, ‘Does this grow here?’ Beer can be a good ambassador and promotional tool for it. After trying the pawpaw ale, I’ve had customers bring fruits into the bar to share.”

Like several other small Ohio microbreweries, Weasel Boy began experimenting with pawpaw beer at the urging of fellow brewer Kelly Sauber and Ohio Pawpaw Festival organizers (the Pawpaw Wheat Beer I had from Jackie O’s Brewery at last year’s festival kept me calm and contented while I stood in line with my daughter for an hour, waiting for her turn to request a free balloon animal.)

Wince doesn’t expect pawpaw beers to conquer national markets anytime soon. “I think there can be a niche market, but never a wide application unless they change the way it’s harvested and the product is more widely available. Pawpaw beers are a regional thing, a seasonal thing.”

Cooking with Pawpaws

If you strike pawpaw gold—either in the woods or at a farmer’s market—you need to have an action plan. Ripe pawpaws only last for two or three days at room temperature. They do well in the refrigerator for about a week if fully ripe, three weeks if a little underripe. (Firm pawpaws don’t ripen well off the tree.) Tree-ripened pawpaws are best; soft, overripe ones tend to have off notes.

Unlike, say, mangoes, the custardy flesh inside a pawpaw is entirely too soft to be diced. Once you separate it from the seeds and skin, it’s already a handy purée, almost like the pulp of a ripe hachiya persimmon. To extract it, halve the pawpaws with a knife and squish them with your bare hands through a colander set over a large bowl (an even better alternative is a conical strainer with a wooden pestle.) The pulp freezes well in a Ziploc bag for up to six months (see our guide to efficiently freezing and defrosting foods here). It oxidizes quickly, so when storing pawpaw pulp in the refrigerator, stir in a little lemon juice and keep the air out by pressing plastic wrap directly on the surface. The pulp is best used within a day.

What next? The pawpaw’s most distinct flavor compounds are volatile, so it’s best to use it in recipes that don’t expose it to heat: think frozen and icebox desserts, smoothies, or salsas. Make your favorite banana pudding, except layer in pawpaw pulp instead of banana slices. You can use a trusty mango sorbet or frozen yogurt recipe and swap pawpaws for the mango. Pawpaws sing with dairy products, so incorporating them with a panna cotta or just spooning some over a good plain yogurt always pleases.

One big exception to the no-heat rule is baking. Thanks to copious amounts of flour and sugar, pawpaw functions well in homey cakes, cookies, and quick breads, where its flavors are subtle. Long-cooked, homemade pawpaw preserves I’ve had mixed success with, though Integration Acres’ pawpaw jam (which cuts the pawpaw with berries) is divine on a cracker with chevre.

The pawpaw’s appeal isn’t just its flavor. These lost-and-found fruits are both abundant and rare, and this puts those of us with heartfelt stakes in the Pawpaw Conspiracy in the strange place of wanting to get lots of people excited about a semi-secret, wild food. In five years, could pawpaws be the next ramps, eliciting sneers of disdain from trend-hoppers suffering pawpaw hype fatigue? I hope not, but if so, you’ll still find me out in the woods, feverishly scanning the low, leafy canopy for just-ripe quarry to pluck.

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Paw Paw Tree

Discover the Exquisite Taste of the Paw Paw

Why Paw Paw Trees?

The dynamic, unique, and undeniably sweet flavors of this best-kept secret will astound you as soon as you take your first bite. Often described as bearing the taste of a banana cream pie, the Paw Paw has overtones of vanilla custard and banana with a hint of citrus.

And the best part is…the Paw Paw Tree is a native tree, so it’s super easy to grow. For starters, its cold hardy, handling temperatures down to -10 degrees. Plus, it’s pest, disease and deer resistant, bringing a tropical feel to any garden without effort.

Why Fast-Growing-Trees.com is Better

A short shelf-life makes the Paw Paw sell at grocery stores and markets, but that’s no problem for you…you’ll have this delectable fruit right at home. And it’s especially effortless because we’ve planted, grown and nurtured each Paw Paw for success before shipping to your door.

So, though you need to purchase two to get fruit, the process couldn’t be simpler. Our plant experts on-staff are here to help every step of the way, from placing your order to incorporating this one-of-a-kind tree in your landscape.

Reap the rewards of our hard work at the nursery…and get your own Paw Paw Tree today. Don’t miss your chance to grow your own Paw Paws!

Planting & Care

1. Planting: Your tree prefers a partial sun location and needs no more than 4 or 5 hours of sunlight a day. Rich, deep, and well-draining soil are ideal conditions from planting new Paw Paws.

Dig a hole that’s just as deep as the root ball, and three times as wide. Place your tree in the hole and make sure that it’s level with the surrounding ground and standing straight upwards a 90-degree angle. Backfill your hole and gently tamp the soil down to prevent air pockets from forming.

Once the planting process is complete, give your tree a long drink of water and mulch around the tree to conserve soil moisture.

2. Watering: Water when soil is dry at least 1 to 2 inches deep. Avoid letting the soil completely dry out.

3. Fertilizing: For optimal growth and fruit production, fertilize twice each year with a well-balanced fertilizer such as a 20-10-10.

4. Pruning: The best time to prune is late winter or early spring. Simply prune for shaping and remove any dead or damaged branches.

5. Harvesting: The Paw Paw will be ready to eat when it pulls off easily from the tree.

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Pawpaw: Small Tree, Big Impact

Figure 2. Select trends in sapling density for A. triloba (pawpaw), N. sylvatica (black gum), and A. rubrum (red maple).

Future Forest Canopy

What are the long-term implications of increasing pawpaw dominance in the forest understory? Although we don’t have a firm answer to this question just yet, we do know that the mix of tree species in the forest understory influences the long-term trajectory of the forest canopy. Many factors determine which saplings ultimately become canopy trees, but trees that do not show up in the sapling layer will never join the forest canopy.
Similarly, species that are more common in the sapling layer have more potential to be represented in the canopy than those with fewer saplings. If pawpaw continues to become more common in the sapling layer at the expense of other species, we might expect it to one day dominate the tree canopy as well.
Pawpaw is a small tree species (some might even consider it a tall shrub), growing to a maximum height of 15m— considerably shorter than the species that currently dominate NCR forest canopies. The five most common forest trees according to NCRN monitoring data include tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera), red maple (Acer rubrum), American beech (Fagus grandifolia), Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana), and white oak (Quercus alba). All of these
grow to 30m or more. If deer populations remain high, the forest canopy height may decline over time, particularly in areas where pawpaw is the only understory species available to replace dead or dying canopy trees. Or, perhaps the forest canopy would become patchier, with short patches dominated by pawpaw and tall patches dominated by other species that are represented in the sapling layer of the forest (American beech, for example, is deer-browse resistant and the second most common sapling in NCR forests).
Interestingly, a similar phenomenon has been observed in over-browsed forests in central Pennsylvania. In these forests, the small, understory species striped-maple (Acer pensylvanicum) has become increasingly common in the forest understory over a 60-year observation period. At the same time, tree species that are capable of growing into the forest canopy have declined by 85% (Kain et al. 2011). Striped maple and American beech were found to make up 82% of all trees in the deer-browsed forests. The authors of this study speculate that these forests may experience unprecedented changes which will ultimately lead to a forest canopy dominated by only a few species that are resistant to deer browse. It is too early to tell if this is the future for NCR forests. For the time being, it is clear that deer-avoidance of pawpaw is contributing to its increased dominance in our understory, and while we may appreciate additional opportunities for fall fruit foraging, we hope it’s not at the expense of losing our mighty tree canopy!

Citations

Kain, M., Battaglia, L., Royo, A., and W.P. Carson. 2011. Over-browsing in Pennsylvania creates a depauperate forest dominated by an understory tree: Results from a 60-year-old deer exclosure.

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