By Charlie Feldman
Many of the early settlers to this area had never seen a banana nor tasted a mango. But they received a reasonable facsimile of the flavor when they walked into the woods and picked up one of those green fruits that ripen and fall from the trees about this time of year. Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch.
Although they are too bulky to put a lot of them in your pocket like the children’s song says (they get up to 6 inches long), you can place a peck of pawpaws in your pail and take them home. They’re the largest edible fruit native to North America, according to the National Park Service. They’re green, actually look like a tropical fruit – well actually, like a green potato – and are attractive to birds, raccoons and squirrels. The flowers attract the zebra swallowtail butterfly, which is strange because the twigs and bark can be ground up to make an insecticide.
Not to be confused with the tropical papaya, which is sometimes also called by that name, the pawpaw (Asimina triloba) or Indiana banana is a member of the Annona family and is related to cherimoyas, guanabanas, sapodilla and similar fruits. You have to go to the lowest part of Florida to find the next closest member of that family, the custard apple, growing in the wild. Pawpaws range from Canada southward to Florida and Texas and westward to Oklahoma, eastern Kansas and southern Nebraska. Here in the Midwest you’ll see them as far north as Michigan and as close as Madison County. In fact, there have been pawpaw sightings in Troy, Maryville, Highland and the campus of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
When tasting one for the first time, eat a small piece first. Some people are allergic to the fruit, especially if it is under-ripe or over-ripe. If nothing happens, you’re in for a taste treat. Some people freeze the pulp to make breads and muffins that have a banana flavor, only sweeter. Some make sorbet or ice cream. Some make wine. The fruit is high in antioxidants and potassium.
April Marie runs a produce stand on Illinois Route 162. She sells pawpaws. She gets them from retired Troy community service officer Scott Lawson, who lives between Highland and St. Jacob. He has 54 trees on his property.
“You do not pick pawpaws,” he wrote in a Facebook discussion on the subject. “They are like persimmons, bitter until they are ripe, and fall from the trees when ready.
“Super sweet,” he added. “Also called pudding fruit because of the texture when ripe.
“Their shelf life is two to three days after they’ve dropped from the tree,” Lawson said later. “If you’re lucky enough to have dwarf trees you can just feel when they start to get soft and then you don’t get the drop bruise on it.”
“When they turn blue, they’re over-ripe,” he said. “And when they look like they’re bad, they’re good. So you want the discoloration in spots and a soft dimple with a light squeeze.
“Your first taste, most people focus on the texture,” Lawson continued. “Always take the second taste and the brilliant flavor of mango and banana start to come through. And the sweetness. The last taste is when the sweetness comes through the best. Pretty much, the more you taste the sweeter it gets.”
Some people save the seeds, which are large, to plant new trees. “You just leave the flesh off of them, let them dry for a couple of weeks and put them in an open container in the refrigerator so they think they’re dormant,” Lawson said. “Leave them there all winter and you can start them early in the spring and they should start to produce fruit within four to five years.”
“Most years they’re few and far between. You have to beat the raccoons and possums to the patch before dark because they clean up everything.”
He said when they return to the site they return the seeds as well with added fertilizer that helps make more trees.
The American Indians ate pawpaws as part of their diet. So did explorer Hernando DeSoto during his boat trip up the Mississippi Valley, writing about them in 1541. The pioneers made jelly.
Pawpaw proponents – those who have actually seen and tasted them – proliferate. A pawpaw festival held on Saturday, September 25 at the West Virginia University Core Arboretum featured a chef preparing pawpaw dishes, samples of several varieties, live music and a live insect zoo. And in the world of social media, there are at least two Facebook groups – Pawpaw Fanatics and Pawpaw Nation – for people to popularize “the best wild fruit you’ve never heard of.”
So if you should see a pawpaw at a popular produce stand or on a patch on your property, plunder it. They’re only here for a short time and when they’re gone you have to wait a whole year for the chance to try them again.