Ozark Encyclopedia – P – Pawpaw

Pawpaw – Asimina triloba

Parts used: bark, fruit

Traditional uses: Fruit used for food. Inner bark used to make strong ropes and string. Wood used in pegging for various illnesses. Fruit used in ritual associated with curing a man of drunkenness. Used in love magic and to prevent infidelity. A magical wood, associated with death and witchcraft. Used to protect from evil spells and curses. Seeds associated with death rituals.

Use in pegging against infidelity – “A hillman whose wife is ‘triflin’ on him’ is sometimes persuaded that he can make everything right by going into the woods at midnight and boring a hole in the crotch of a pawpaw tree. This done, he mutters a secret Biblical quotation, drives a stout wooden peg into the auger hole, and walks away without looking back at the tree. The hole behind the peg may contain a wad of human hair, dried blood, fingernail parings, ‘a piece of a woman’s undergarment, and some unidentified material resembling beeswax.” ~Randolph OMF

Hair tied to pawpaw branches to settle an affair – “I once knew two sisters in Jasper county, Missouri, who went far out in the woods and bent several twigs on a pawpaw tree, tying them fast in the bent position with twisted locks of their own hair. Relatives of these girls told me that this had something to do with an unsatisfactory love affair in which both girls were involved, but I was unable to learn anything definite about the matter. It was not the sort of thing that a mere acquaintance could safely investigate.” ~Randolph OMF

Cloth strips tied to a pawpaw tree as a love charm – “In rural Arkansas the backwoods girls tie little pieces of cloth to the branches of certain trees usually pawpaw or hawthorn, sometimes redbud or ironwood. I have seen five of these little bundles in a single pawpaw tree. I have untied several and examined them carefully; there was nothing in them that I could see, just little pieces of cloth, doubtless torn from old dresses or petticoats. The natives say they are love charms, but just how they work I do not know. No woodsman that I have ever known would think of touching one of these objects, and I have often been warned that it is very bad luck to ‘monkey with such as that.’” ~Randolph OMF

Protection from witches – “Some of the old-timers drive three nails into the outside of a door, in the form of a triangle, to keep witches away from the cabin; one man told me that the three nails represent the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost and were particularly efficacious in protecting an expectant mother from the powers of evil. Painting the outside of a door blue is said to be a sensible precaution also, and some people make doubly sure by driving several tiny pegs of pawpaw wood into the doorsill.” ~Randolph OMF

Pegging for protection against witches – “If it is possible to obtain any part of the witch’s body such as fingernail parings, a lock of hair, a tooth, or even a cloth with some of her blood upon it the witch doctor has recourse to another method. Out in the woods at midnight he bores a hole in the fork of a pawpaw tree, and drives a wooden peg into the hole. Once, despite the protests of a superstitious hillman who was with me, I pulled out one of these pegs and examined it. The end was covered with beeswax, in which several long hairs were imbedded. There was a circle of what appeared to be dried blood higher up on the peg, and the auger hole contained a quantity of fine sand. A similar ‘pawpaw conjure’ is sometimes employed by cuckold husbands, but it is primarily intended to deal with women who ‘talk the Devil’s language.’” ~Randolph OMF

Crops and livestock – “Many farmers say that it is a good idea to bury a bit of a cow’s afterbirth under a pawpaw tree, as this will cause her to bring forth female calves thereafter.” ~Randolph OMF

Against drunkenness – “It is said that some Ozark temperance workers have advocated placing a pawpaw in the hand of a dying person; if a drunkard, not knowing of the ‘cunjure,’ can be persuaded to eat this pawpaw, he will quit drinking in spite of himself. My wife and I knew an old woman who, when the doctor told her she was dying, called for a pawpaw. She held the fruit for a moment, then asked that it be fed to her youngest son after her death. This was done, but the boy was still a booze fighter the last I heard of him.” ~Randolph OMF

Attracting the dead – “There is a rather general idea that departed spirits, when they return to earth, prefer to appear in the dark of the moon. It is also believed that the dead, if they can’t rest in their graves, are somehow inclined to loiter about redbuds, pawpaw trees, and haw bushes though why they should be attracted to these particular plants nobody seems to know.” ~Randolph OMF

Retribution for a murderer – “The relatives of a murdered man sometimes throw pawpaw seeds into the grave, on top of the coffin. It is said that this insures that the murderer will be punished.” ~Randolph OMF

Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Ethnobotany (NAE)

Randolph, Vance Ozark Magic and Folklore (OMF)

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