by Matt Meduri
In recent years, pawpaws have had a sort of revival thanks to the popularity of foraging and farm-to-table movements. They’ve even become a sweetheart for backyard farmers and those interested in edible landscaping.
Most people with a love for pawpaws usually come by the fruit unknowingly. A friend picked up some at the farmers market. A neighbor had a set of trees in their yard. Maybe you grew up with them in the woods behind your house, or your meemaw ate them when she was a little girl.
The precious pawpaw has received lots of attention in the last decade, even becoming Ohio’s official native fruit in 2009. But many people still have no idea what it is. Hopefully that will change.
Falling in love
For me, it was the late summer of 2015 and I was visiting some friends in Athens. The plan was to spend the entire Saturday at the Ohio Pawpaw Festival. My first thought, like many, was “what exactly is a Pawpaw Fest?” I was completely oblivious. I was quickly informed that we were celebrating Ohio’s native fruit, the pawpaw.
What unfolded was a long day of live music and events featuring this fruit in various forms. We drank different styles of pawpaw-brewed beer, took pictures with a person dressed in a giant pawpaw costume and left with handfuls of fruit to take home and enjoy — and introduce to family and friends.
It was like I had stumbled into some secret society that had access to a gastronomic gem that was pretty much in our backyard, and I hadn’t even known they existed.
WTF is a pawpaw?
The pawpaw goes by many names, such as Indiana banana, hillbilly banana, bandango (think banana and mango) or even its scientific name, asimina triloba. This fruit grows on a small, understory deciduous tree found all over Ohio, but mostly in the fertile soil of river valleys — the banks of rivers and creeks or steep hillsides. So if you’re biking or hiking on trails or the Towpath or kayaking along the Cuyahoga River, chances are you’ll spot some pawpaw trees along the way.
Pawpaw trees are usually between 12 and 20 feet tall with a pyramidal shape, but they can sometimes reach heights of 30 to 40 feet in natural conditions. Their foliage appears very tropical, having long, dark green drooping leaves that look like hound dog ears. They are hard to miss and tend to stand out, but if you’re not familiar with their appearance, you could confuse them with magnolia trees.
In spring, pawpaw trees have deep, red flowers that are fleshy in appearance. As summer unfolds, if pollinated, a smooth, small, light green fruit begins to take shape and can grow as a single piece or in a cluster like bananas or papayas.
Though pawpaws are small enough to fit in your hand, their size can range from an egg to a medium size potato. When ripe, pawpaws have a sort of bruised appearance, a speckle of green and black that gives their skin an almost purple hue. You’ll be able to tell when they’re ripe because you can smell their sweet aroma, and they should have the softness of a ripe peach.
Some pawpaw eaters like to rip them open and bite into their creamy yellow or soft orange pulp. Others cut them in half and spoon out their custardy goodness, which makes it easier to work around the large, black, inedible lima-bean shaped seeds. Their taste is otherworldly when you consider where they grow. Depending on the variety and ripeness of the fruit, you may catch hints of banana, mango, pineapple, pear, or even caramel and vanilla.
America’s folk fruit
Jane O’Brien, the Education and Community Outreach Coordinator at James H. Barrow Biological Field Station of Hiram College, leads informational workshops for people of all ages about pawpaws and lovingly oversees the station’s five-tree orchard. During the workshops, she has people study and taste the fruit and start their own seeds to replant at home. Jane even provides some history and folklore about North America’s largest native fruit.
Native Americans cultivated pawpaw trees for their fruit, bark to make rope and seeds to grind and use as a powder to treat head lice. Lewis and Clark subsisted on pawpaws at times during their expedition. Enslaved African Americans ate them en route to freedom. Thomas Jefferson had a small pawpaw orchard at his estate and even shipped the seeds to friends in Europe.
O’Brien recounts singing the old folk song about the pawpaw patch as a child in school: Pickin’ up pawpaws, puttin’ ’em in a basket / pickin’ up pawpaws, puttin’ ’em in a basket / pickin’ up pawpaws, puttin’ ’em in a basket / way down yonder in the pawpaw patch.
Where to find them
It’s unlikely that you’ll find pawpaws at the grocery store. They don’t ship well and they have an extremely short shelf life. And because pawpaw season is brief — roughly the end of August to the beginning of October — you have to be diligent about seeking them out. So, if you see pawpaws, know that it is usually first come, first serve. You’ll pay anywhere from $5 to $12 a pound, which is totally worth it.
Or, eat the fruits of someone else’s labor and try something delicious made from pawpaws. Lizette Barton of Barton Farms and Gardens makes a wonderfully sweet nectarine pawpaw jam that you can pick up at Kent’s Haymaker Farmers Market. The pawpaws come straight from trees planted by Lizette’s father-in-law who is a master gardener. Gwen Rosenburg, owner of Popped! and a Kent City Council member, has a lush yard of various fruit trees, including several pawpaws. In September, her shop in Kent sells both homemade pawpaw ice cream and pawpaws from her personal trees. Akron’s beloved Thirsty Dog has been brewing their seasonal Paw Paw Saison since 2013, dry-hopped with Ohio’s native fruit.
If the farmers market price is too steep or you just don’t like jam, ice cream, or beer (is that even possible?), then you can still savor these little treasures. Venture into the woods and try your hand at foraging. Not only do you get to spend some much-needed time in nature, but you have the satisfaction of finding your own food, something that will make you feel connected to the land.
If you forage, be mindful of local laws. Summit Metro Parks are off limits for foraging, but state parks are usually okay — it never hurts to call your local parks service to be certain. Privately owned land, as long as you get permission, is okay. There are a few apps to use that can help you choose a location. Falling Fruit and iNaturalist are collaborative communities of users exploring and recording the locations of plants and animals on interactive maps. These can give you an idea of where you should plan your trek and make foraging feel a little bit like Pokémon Go. Most of the marked locations on the map will even provide pictures, so you know what you’re looking for.
Maybe foraging isn’t your thing, but you still want your first pawpaw experience, and you want it to be special. Summit Metro Parks puts on a pawpaw open house every year in September that includes informational presentations and tasting. This year the open house takes place on September 14 from 5:30-6:30 pm at the Summit Lake Nature Center.
Jane O’Brien has a pawpaw workshop planned for September at the James H. Barrow Biological Field Station in Garrettsville. Both events provide a guided tour for the uninitiated.
Or take that brave step, drink the pawpaw Kool-aid, and just grow your own. It may help to visit Cascade Locks Park in Akron to see the several beautifully kept pawpaw trees graciously planted by the Akron Garden Club.
Pawpaw revival via [sub]urban gardening
Making the leap from seasonal, occasional, or even non-gardener to amateur pawpaw grower may seem like an added anxiety or a large investment. But a pawpaw tree is a simple and wonderful addition to anyone’s yard. Because pawpaw trees are a native plant, they are best suited for local conditions, making them compatible with the biodiversity of the region.
According to Sandy Burbic, Education Specialist at the Summit Soil and Water Conservation District, native plants like pawpaws provide a habitat for the animals of that region. Having a more biodiverse yard contributes to healthy, balanced ecosystems that also clean our air and water. By incorporating or re-introducing native plants that once grew in abundance before commercial landscaping and development, you will start to see native wildlife reemerge. Insects like the Pawpaw Sphinx Moth and the Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly, which is gorgeous, specifically feed on pawpaw leaves.
Even though pawpaws are native trees, they grow best in certain conditions. Because they are understory trees, they thrive in shade. However, they tend to yield more fruit in sunlight. Plant them in a place that has wet, well-drained soil and will get partial shade at least in their early years when trees are most sensitive to sunlight. When planting pawpaw trees, you’ll need at least two for cross pollination or else they won’t produce fruit. They can be started from moist seeds or planted as saplings found at local nurseries. Grafted cultivars can be purchased online if you want a specific pawpaw variety, and you’re willing to spend the money.
Sandy says that both Summit and Portage Soil and Water Conservation Districts have tree sales in the spring where residents can buy an assortment of native and hardy plants, including pawpaws. Once established, it may take a couple of years before you see fruit, but once you do, you’ll have pawpaws for years to come.
So whether you’re beginning or feeding your pawpaw obsession with foraging, visiting the farmers market, or planting a pair of trees of your own, you’re unearthing one of Ohio’s best kept secrets. And who knows? Maybe Northeast Ohio will start its own festival celebrating the pawpaw.
Paw Paw Pie
Recipe by Sharon Hamilton
- 1/2 tsp unflavored gelatin
- 3 tbsp cold water
- 1 cup mashed pawpaw (puree for a smoother texture)
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- 1/2 tsp lemon zest
- 3 tbsp Honey
- 2 eggs, separated
- Dash of salt
- 1 pie shell
- Whipped cream for topping
Soften gelatin in water for 5 min. Combine in a medium sauce pan the mashed pawpaw, lemon juice, zest, 2 tbsp of honey, 2 slightly beaten egg yolks, and salt. Cook mixture slowly on low heat while continually stirring until consistency of soft custard. Remove from heat, add gelatin, and stir until completely dissolved. Cool until slightly thickened. Beat egg whites until stiff, beat in honey, and fold into pawpaw mixture. Pour into pie shell and chill until firm. Serve with whipped cream.
Matthew Meduri writes about food and people in their various forms and will write for food.
Pawpaw ice cream: Photo by Gwen Rosenberg. Used with permission. Illustrations and pawpaw flower: Public domain images via the New York Public Library digital collection. Remaining photos: Matthew Meduri.