Tasting like a blend of bananas and mango, Pawpaws have a tropical taste, totally unexpected where it is indigenous – the Mid-Atlantic, the South, and the Mid-West of the United States. Growing in a temperate deciduous forest, this native tropical-like fruit is unique to the US and is the largest edible fruit native to North America, measuring from 3- 6 inches long with a deceptive green skin. Pale yellow to bright orange flesh with hefty black seeds, a pawpaw’s custardy flavor is a riot of different mango citrus flavors. Of a pudding like consistency, you can cut one in half length wise, remove the seeds and scoop out the custardy flesh.
Members of Lewis and Clark expedition ate Pawpaws with gusto and our early American ancestors enjoyed Pawpaws for centuries and they were reputed to be George Washington’s favorite fruit. There are reports of conquistador Hernando de Soto recording native Americans growing and eating Pawpaws in the Mississippi Valley in 1541. And Audubon depicted yellow-billed cuckoos on a Pawpaw branch. But the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest States are Pawpaw areas where this tropical like fruit is most prevalent.
Collecting & Harvesting
Pawpaws at the peak of ripeness, fall to the ground, a convenient way to collect them, but you need to find them right away, within at least a day of falling. Otherwise, insects and animals (think claw marks and bites out of your precious fruit), will make the Pawpaws unusable.
If you want to avoid them falling, you need to press and squeeze your fruit on the tree. The Pawpaws will have a little give, like a perfect peach. That is the prime time to pick it, as not all the fruit will ripen at once. They take their time and ripen at their own speed.
Having a short shelf life (2-3 days), Pawpaws aren’t a big agricultural product because they would bruise and rot before shipping. Commonly found in woods, along streams, you can easily forage for Pawpaws in mid September to October. Just look up in the branches of trees or down on the ground where they have fallen.
A Pawpaw Renaissance is underway and there are lots of enthusiastic growers or foragers who tout their delicious byproducts like ice cream or jams. Pawpaw festivals are everywhere in September and early October and that is a prime time to taste a Pawpaw as well as pick up a tree for your own Pawpaw patch.
Growing is Easy
Growing your own trees is the best way to keep supplied with a constant source of harvestable Pawpaws over a 6 week long window. Easy to grow in average soil in sun or part shade (it is an understory tree), they can grow up to 25 feet tall with large leaves covering the branches. Not bothered with insects or diseases, I grow mine organically, leaving it alone, and my young trees started to produce within 3 years from a sapling. The trees will send up saplings that are connected by roots to the mother tree and if you let these go, you will produce a Pawpaw patch!
When I first started to scrape out the flesh for cooking projects like ice cream and cheesecake, I was discouraged with all the seeds and work to scrape the custardy like flesh out of the skin. But then, I pulled out my food mill, and it worked like a charm to process over 30 Pawpaws! Taking about 20 minutes, I had enough pulp, over 10 cups, ready to go in the freezer, for a lot of future Pawpaw cooking projects. Cheesecake, cocktails, and ice cream are all on my list.
Recipes are available on the Kentucky State University website.
I only have two Pawpaw trees which is more than enough for my own use. You need at least 2 trees for pollination, so be sure to have at a minimum 2 trees. Pollinated by flies and beetles, the fruit is known to be enjoyed by opossums, foxes, squirrels, racoons, and birds. My two trees are very close to my large fig tree which ripens at the same time so it is a veritable feast out there! I don’t begrudge the animals the fruit, as there is plenty for all.