I was first introduced to the paw paw (Asimina troloba) on an Ecology Club camping trip in high school by a most excellent teacher. Since then, I have run across it at the right time of year to enjoy it from time to time, but have never really run across enough paw paws to get more than a taste…until now. I have been lucky enough to find a pawpaw mother load, and get foraging permission.
If you are not from an area where the pawpaw is native, or for some reason you just haven’t heard of it, you are missing out on an acquired, but ultimately tasty treat. Its flavor is difficult to describe (different varieties also have different flavors)–an almost tropical flavor with a creamy and smooth custard-like texture. It has been called the Custard Apple (and compared in flavor to the May Apple), the Poor Man’s Banana (and the Hoosier Banana), and in fact, is similar (and in some ways superior) to the banana in is nutritive content.
The paw paw is the largest native fruit, originating in North America millions of years ago, and was introduced to Europeans by Native Americans. Paw paw was a commonly enjoyed fruit in the earlier history of the US–the chilled fruit was a favorite of George Washington, and paw paw trees were planted at Monticello by Thomas Jefferson and eventually inspiring the Appalacian folk song “Way Down Yonder In the Paw Paw Patch” (the above video). Sometime around WWI though, the paw paw went underground and, though many exotic and not-so exotic (but different) foods have made their way into the grocery store, the paw paw has not…though Kentucky State University’s Paw Paw Program hopes to change that.
It turned out that they don’t ship well. Pawpaws are at their most delicious when they are ripe and soft – and a tad ugly. There is little supermarket appeal for bruised, soggy fruit.
Adding to this, the tree’s flowers* smell like rotting meat (some orchardists actually hang roadkill in the limbs to attract the pollinator – the blow fly) and the fact that the pawpaw seed is said to be poisonous** makes it difficult to attract all but the most ardent of growers.
So if you are to hitch yourself to a steady supply, you must either find a knowing soul at a farmers’ market, or grow them yourself (they are quite attractive landscape trees, with their basset-hound-ear leaves, intriguing purple flowers, and lure of swallowtail butterflies). (source)
*links to an image of the flower from the USDA’s Plant Profiles–its the only part of the plant I don’t have a picture of yet
**historic information on how the seeds were used medicinally
Of course, if you can’t grow them, and don’t know any “knowing soul” at your local farmer’s market…you might be able to get lucky in your local woods. The paw paw grows in previously disturbed areas of Eastern temperate woodlands (it will not grow in old-growth areas and usually arrives a couple years after a disturbance regime) and favors moist bottom-land and flood plains. They grow between 15-30 feet tall and (in the wild) produce less fruits than cultivars (possibly a problem of limited cross-pollination) with a beautiful, large, droopy sort of leaf. Paw paw trees have a very tropical, almost primeval appearance to them that seems almost out of place…when you walk through a paw paw patch, you really do feel out of time.
Paw paw season is sometime from August to October varying somewhat by location. Harvesting paw paws depends on one’s ability to not only locate a patch of trees, but to know how to determine ripeness. “Ripe pawpaws should give when squeezed gently, as ripe peaches do, and can be picked easily with a gentle tug. Ripe pawpaws usually give off a powerful fruity aroma, as well. Color change is generally not a reliable indicator of ripeness.” Once harvested, the fruit only last for a few days, but refrigerated can last up to 3 weeks–which is awesome because the paw paw can be used in a number of recipes, including this one for paw paw wine, and even paw paw mead.
Since I know some of ya’ll don’t live in an area where the paw paw grows (and though it offends my sense of local foods first), I figure I’ll offer up this company in Ohio that ships paw paws (when they are in season) and paw paw products. Though you can’t have the joy of discovering a giant paw paw patch a stone’s throw from your balcony, at least you can check it out for yourself!