[photos by Brent T. Ladd]
A great way of connecting with the Earth and nature is to get to know the plants that grow in your area. It is especially gratifying to learn about the wild edibles available to you. The Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is a small understory tree found throughout the eastern U.S. – especially in rich moist soils in floodplains near creeks, rivers, and wetland areas. It is one of my very favorite plants, as it provides multiple gifts of which its fruits are a delectable find while hiking in the woods during the Pawpaw Moon – during September and October here in my state of Indiana.
I’ve known the fruit as an “Indiana Banana”, called this because of its prevalence in moist rich soils of woodlands throughout the state and it’s resemblance to banana flesh. Some call it a hillbilly mango, as it looks like a green mango hanging in clusters from the thin long branches of the tree (and presumably eaten by hillbillies like me). The custard-vanilla-mango flavor is a combination you probably have not tasted in any other fruit. The Pawpaw
has the distinction of producing the largest wild fruit indigenous to North America.
About twelve years ago I transplanted two wild Pawpaw sapling starts in a small clearing of the old creek floodplain near my house. A few years ago one of the trees began producing fruit. This year is a bumper crop!
Gently shaking the tree will dislodge any fruit that is ripe or near ripe. If the flesh gives inward from a gentle squeeze between your fingers, and you can smell a pleasant aroma coming from the fruit, then it is ripe enough to eat. Some like to wait until the color of the flesh is turning a yellow-green and is actually squishy. During early autumn you will come across the fallen green potato shaped fruit on the ground.
The photo shows a pile of fruit from one shake of the tree. There is a lot more fruit on the tree, which will fall to the ground over the next few weeks. In our backyard woodland and meadow, we have resident red fox, groundhogs, opossum, raccoon, and coyote that all will dine on these Pawpaw fruits, subsequently spreading the seeds further away to hopefully sprout and eventually produce more Pawpaw trees.
Eating a ripe Pawpaw banana is best done right on the spot, by peeling away the top inch skin and then gently squeezing the inner flesh upward like a tube of toothpaste. Much of the flesh adheres to the 5-10 large black seeds inside, so you will be moving those around inside
your mouth to get the delicious flesh off, and then gratifyingly spitting the seed some distance away. By walking along and eating and spitting the seeds back to the soil, you are spreading the Pawpaw genetics and potential for more to grow in future years.
If you prefer a more ‘civilized’ dining experience, bring along a spoon and scoop the flesh out (But, there is no way of avoiding spitting out the seeds – don’t eat them).
Accounts of Lewis and Clark’s expedition mention a time of two weeks when they were out of all food supplies and were 150 miles from the nearest settlement. Their party subsisted on only Pawpaw fruit for two weeks, apparently happily so. The fruit is packed with nutrients. The fruit and twigs are currently undergoing medical research with promising results for attacking cancer cells.
The Pawpaw bark, when stripped from a sucker shoot and made into cordage is very strong and can be used for anything you would need a rope to tie up or construct (see photo with a short piece of cordage made on the spot as an example). The wood itself is soft and makes an excellent fiction fire set for either hand drill or bow drill methods. Removing the bark from dead sapling or branches and working it between your hands and shredding it up can make a tinder nest for placing the friction fire coal to get your fire started.
You won’t find Pawpaw fruit in any grocery store as it doesn’t transport without bruising, and the shelf life is very short. Sometimes you come across them at Farmer’s Markets. The best experience of Pawpaw fruit is to happen upon them in the woods during early autumn, and enjoy them as a snack as you enjoy connecting with nature.