Quick show of hands, who has ever picked a pawpaw? Did you know you could? I mean, Baloo, the bear, sings about them in Disney’s adaptation of The Jungle Book, but have you ever stopped to think about just what it is he’s talking about?
In the tropics, a pawpaw is a papaya – the various words mingling native Carib and Spanish languages to describe a common tropical fruit. (This is probably what Baloo was after).
Somewhere along the way, the word also came to describe a species of small shrubby tree native to the eastern half of the United States (from the Mid-Atlantic up through Pennsylvania, to roughly the Florida border, and west to Missouri), and a surprisingly sweet, tropical-tasting fruit that has nothing to do with the tropical papaya, but which you’d swear grew in a tropical forest, and not an oak-filled creek bottom in Virginia.
Many people have them growing in their backyards, and have no idea. The “Common Pawpaw”, or Asimina triloba, is a short, sparsely leaved tree, rarely growing over 35 feet, but forming patches, or groves of related trees in bottomland along creeks all over the east. Its leaves resemble a giant hickory stem, with leaves growing in compound clusters of alternating pointed-ovals, but where each “leaflet” is 12-14 inches long.
In early to mid-September, pawpaw magic happens. The fruit, growing in clusters of two to three, resembles a greenish potato both in size and shape. They are irregular, and ripen at different times, turning to a yellowish or even brown color when ripe. Cut open, the fruit is bright yellow, soft, and creamy in texture, almost like a custard, and filled with rows of dark seeds about the size and shape of a flat chestnut, about an inch in diameter.
These fruits are delicious! It’s quite a unique flavor, sweet and tropical, with hints of banana, mango, and cantaloupe, but without any citrus tang. As soft as it is, the easiest way to eat it is by mouthful – just use the skin to squeeze out all the fruit, and eat around the seeds, spitting them out clean. Many of the few people familiar with pawpaws will mash the fruit and use as a flavoring for pies, or ice cream, or really just about anything.
There are two reasons you’ve probably never heard of this treat. One, they are not abundant producers. A given tree might have two to three clusters on it, and though they grow in patches of trees, you might still have to cover some territory to fill up a bucket.
Two, there is precious little time between having a ripe pawpaw and a rotten one. Their prime only lasts a day or so, so if you miss hitting that very narrow window of availability, they’re gone. The good news is, you can pick them early and they’ll continue to ripen on your kitchen counter. I also understand you can freeze them, though I’ve never personally tried.
For these reasons, pawpaws have never enjoyed commercial cultivation, and they remain a wild fruit. A wild, very tasty fruit. Get out there now if you want to try one though, they won’t last long!!
Get Out There