“Pickin’ up paw paws, put ’em in your pocket
Way down yonder in the paw paw patch”Appalachian Folk Song
It’s September in Maryland and do you know what that means? PAWPAW SEASON! Okay let’s take a step back because chances are, you might not know what pawpaws are! Pawpaw trees (Asimina triloba) are native to the eastern US into Canada and produce a fruit in the late summer/ early fall. It’s actually the largest fruit indigenous to the United States! Cool right? So bright green pawpaw fruit start forming in the summer but come Fall they will ripen and turn soft and might even look slightly yellow-brown. They’re best eaten when they’re either fallen from the tree or easily come off the stem.
Pawpaw trees have really large, long leaves on spindly trunks. They prefer growing in bottom land that is very fertile and well-draining. I always keep my eyes out for them along stream and river beds. They’re considered an undergrowth tree, which means that they grow in the shade of larger trees. They can grow up to 30ft tall and are usually found in hardwood forests.
In the springtime, the pawpaw produces flowers with six petals arranged in sets of three. They are a beautiful deep maroon color but they don’t smell too nice! Around the same time that the flowers emerge, the tree begins putting out its signature huge oblong leaves. They are bright green most of the season and then turn to yellow and brown after it drops its fruit.
But what you probably want to know more about is the fruit! Pawpaw fruit is soft and creamy, often compared to custard. In fact, it’s very similar to bananas which over the years has given it a variety of colloquial names including: wild banana and Appalachian banana. The fruit contains several large brown seeds in a row and these seeds along with the peel are not edible.
Although you won’t find a pawpaw in the grocery store, they do have a long history in this area. Pawpaws were so important to the indigenous Shawnee people, who inhabited the Ohio Valley, that they named a month for them! In the Shawnee language September is literally called the Pawpaw Moon. The first written record of pawpaws dates back to 1541 when a Spanish explorer wrote of seeing Indigenous peoples harvesting them. Pawpaws were even enjoyed by founding fathers, with Thomas Jefferson planting groves at Monticello and one of George Washington’s favorite desserts was chilled pawpaw. Lewis and Clark even snacked on them during their expedition west!
Use and Popularity
Pawpaws have grown in popularity with the increased interest in local foraging. Pawpaw fruits are notoriously difficult to transport as their flesh bruises easily and they quickly rot once they have been picked. However, more and more people are realizing how easy it is to find pawpaws around their own neighborhoods! On one of our hikes at the American Chestnut Land Trust, J and I found a huge pawpaw grove. Sadly, they weren’t ready to be picked yet. Another weekend, we were walking along the C&O Canal and found a whole group of people harvesting pawpaws. They were kind enough to share their loot with us so we had a tasty snack for our walk. Then finally, I found some pawpaws within walking distance from my home. I actually was out running and completely abandoned that when I found a tree with perfectly ripe pawpaws. I harvested a few, leaving some for others, and brought them home to gather the puree.
This was my very first attempt at making something with pawpaws. I usually just eat them raw (which is delicious) but I had been hearing a lot about how tasty they are in ice cream or baked goods. I got about 2 cups of pulp from my pawpaws so I decided to make bread. I took my favorite banana bread recipe and just subbed the pawpaws in for the fruit. I thought it was delicious and interestingly the bread turned pink! Apparently pawpaw fruit reacts with baking soda to turn it a light pink color. My whole family really liked the bread and we thought it tasted slightly berry-like. It was perfect for breakfast with a cup of coffee. I’m calling this bake a success! I think next time I would maybe add cinnamon or ginger. Have you ever tried a pawpaw? What did you think?
Hannah’s Pawpaw Bread
1 ¼ cup sugar
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
2 cups pawpaw puree
½ c plain Greek yogurt
1 tsp vanilla
2 ½ cups flour
Preheat oven to 350F. Grease the bottom of a 9 in loaf pan. Cream together butter and sugar. Stir in eggs and vanilla. Add pawpaw puree and yogurt. Beat until smooth. Stir in flour, baking soda, and salt until just combined. Don’t over mix! Pour into pans and bake for about an hour and 15 mins. This makes one very large loaf or two smaller loaves. If making muffins, bake for about 25-30 mins. Enjoy!