Have you ever asked yourself, “I wonder what is the biggest fruit that’s native to America”? You haven’t? Well, please allow me to tell you about it anyway.
The pawpaw is found naturally in damp, rich soil, often near stream banks or the shady perimeter of woodlands. It’s hard to know where it originated, as it is thought that Native Americans spread it to its current range, which is from Ontario to Florida, from the Eastern Seaboard west to Kansas.
For covering such a large habitat, the pawpaw is not a popular tree. It is pretty, though; large drooping glossy leaves spreading out from a low trunk give the pawpaw a shaggy, overgrown look, like an arboreal hippie. Its early spring flowers are tiny, the color of raw meat, and have the slight carrion smell shared by many flowers that are pollinated by flies.
Pawpaw wood isn’t commercially viable in any industry, which leaves this tree dependent on its fruits to uphold its image. These occur in clusters and resemble mangoes. At times they are so plentiful that large branches bend under their weight.
Some people love the taste of pawpaw, but not many. It is very, very sweet, with a tropical flavor that has been compared to banana or pineapple, but this is usually also accompanied by a fermented taste of dirty tube socks. It’s not that bad, but you can’t imagine eating more than one.
We’re in the height of pawpaw season right now. I’ve had the opportunity to eat a few pawpaws recently, and have declined the offer to eat even more. When I passed around a plate of pawpaw chunks at a dinner last week, the reviews were mixed. Almost everyone managed to get a piece down, but nobody took seconds.
A friend sympathized, even as she attempted to press a basket of pawpaws on me. She had just written to a wild-food expert, asking what she could do with the massive crop of pawpaws her tree was producing. His answer? “Nothing.”
If after this description you’d still like to try pawpaw for yourself, you’ll most likely have to forage for it. Because of their thin skins and tendency to ferment, they only last a day or so after they ripen, making them difficult to sell commercially. But if you’re fortunate enough to come across one in the wild, or know someone who has a tree, there’s a very good chance there will be enough to share.