Pawpaw : The Indiana Banana
A pawpaw fruit may not look creamy and tropical from the outside. In fact, it looks more earthy, like a freshly dug potato. The intoxicatingly tropical scent beckons you to look closer, and when you do, you’ll find this fruit filled with rich and creamy mango-banana flavored custard. The experience is uniquely tropical for an Indiana native tree fruit. In fact, the pawpaw is the only member of its plant family to survive this far north. Its true name is Asimina triloba, of the family Annonaceae. Its relatives are all tropical, and include the Custard Apple, Soursop, and Chermioya. The pawpaw itself is native to most of the Eastern United States.
Pawpaw fruits ripen during the month of September. Though I’ve planted over 50 pawpaw trees, only two have begun to fruit. These two trees are grafted with named pawpaw varieties. Grafted trees will grow and bear fruit faster than seed-grown trees, and the fruit is predictable- if you graft your tree with wood from another tree that bears delicious pawpaws, your tree will produce identically delicious fruit. The downside of grafted trees is they reduce genetic diversity. I prefer to keep most of my trees wild on this farm to preserve more genetic diversity, but it is nice to have a few special grafted trees mixed in. I harvested a total of six pawpaws this year from my two grafted trees, though I could swear I had 8 on my trees at one point. Humans aren’t the only pawpaw lovers!
To enjoy the fruits, slice in half lengthwise. Remove the seeds and set them aside. The seeds are very large and easy to remove. Use a spoon to scoop out the creamy flesh. Do not eat the seeds or the skin.
If you’d like to grow a pawpaw tree for yourself, plant the seeds right away and keep them watered until winter. Pawpaw seeds will not germinate if they dry out. They are not extremely flood tolerant, but they do prefer moist soil and they can handle occasional standing water. They may need irrigation while they become established, during their first three years of growth. It is my understanding that they do not need irrigation after they reach 3 years old, except perhaps during times of extreme drought. They grow well in part-shade, but they fruit best with more sun. This is a native wild tree that grows successfully in the woods without human intervention. Beyond a little water and a little sun, this tree doesn’t ask for much. I never spray mine with anything, nor do I apply any special fertilizers. I just top-dress with a little mulch now and then, and the trees are happy.
Enjoy pawpaws as soon as possible after harvest. They will keep in the refrigerator for a few days, but this is not a long-keeping fruit. You may wonder why you never see this local delicacy in grocery stores, and that is why. The fruits are delicate and they do not ship well or keep a long time.
Though this fruit has enormous culinary potential and is delicious in a wide variety of dishes, I personally have not developed any pawpaw recipes yet. I’ve simply never had more pawpaws in my possession than what I could eagerly devour fresh, cold, and straight up, so I’ve never experimented with preserving them or baking them into things. People do freeze the pulp for winter use in a similar manner as with persimmons, so if you have a bounty, you could give that a try. I look forward to the day when my 50+ trees all come into fruit and I can finally experiment with pawpaw recipes galore.
The Ohio Pawpaw Festival is a great place to immerse yourself in pawpaw culture. There I’ve tried pawpaw beer, pawpaw wine, pawpaw salsa, pawpaw burritos, pawpaw cakes, fresh pawpaws, and more. The festival also features an educational component with pawpaw-related lectures and demonstrations.