The common pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is an exquisite and rare treat that North Americans seem to have forgotten about somewhere along the way—though of course that’s a pretty common story when it comes to native wild foods.
The pawpaw fruit is considered to be the largest fruit native to North America (excluding gourds, which are technically fruits but typically classified as vegetables). They’re not huge by any means – the size and shape, paired with the green-to-yellow, easily-bruised skin, may remind some of a small, misshapen pear at first glance.
But if you’re lucky enough to stumble upon a ripe pawpaw, what you’ll find when you slice it open is downright tropical: fragrant, tender flesh and a flavor that lands somewhere between mango, banana, and papaya.
Pawpaws trees prefer the understory, forming thick “patches” when conditions are ideal – they thrive where there’s plenty of shade and the soil is fertile and well-drained.
When you’re way down yonder in the pawpaw patch, it’s hard to tell if you’re looking at one tree or fifty. Sure, there may be fifty spindly grey stems adorned with fat, oblong leaves hanging anywhere from 3 to 15 feet above the ground. But rather than relying on their seeds to spread, pawpaws instead propagate themselves clonally by sending out suckers from their roots, which look like new trees but are actually extensions of the “mother” tree.
If you do find yourself in a pawpaw patch, look around for the biggest specimen you can find – chances are it will be centrally located, and it’s likely responsible for most of the others surrounding it.
The earliest pawpaw fruits will begin to ripen at the tail-end of August in the warmer parts of their range in the Eastern US, which extends west to Nebraska, north to New York and Ontario, and south to northern Florida. Expect to find the majority of your ripe pawpaw fruits through the month of September, and possibly into October further north.
Pawpaws are finicky fruit producers because they need lots of shade to grow well in their first few years, but then require good sunlight in order to flower. So the ideal pawpaw patch is one that is well established in the shade, but also happens to be growing near a forest edge or clearing where some of the clones get a decent amount of daily sun.
Not only does the sun access situation complicate matters, but then the issue of pollination throws another wrench in the system. You see, pawpaws are pollinated by flies, carrion beetles and other related insects who spend their days searching for rotting flesh. The pawpaw flower attempts to court these bugs with an appropriately rank scent, but unfortunately for them it is very faint and doesn’t always attract many takers, so it’s rare to find more than a couple fruits on any given tree.
How do you know when they’re ready? If you’re really, really lucky you’ll find a ripe, untouched fruit or two that have fallen to the ground, but chances are that the critters of the woods will beat you to those – not to mention many or all of the fruits you’d deem so-close-to-ripe-it’s-not-funny. If you see fruits up in the trees—they can be tricky to spot due to their inconspicuous appearance—give the trunk a good shaking. If the fruits fall, they’re most likely ready to eat, or will be in a matter of days. They should be soft and a little squishy, with a yellowish hue to the green and brown-black skin. Don’t be afraid of bruises! They should look a little beat-up when they’re ready.
If you find some fruits that aren’t quite ripe yet but don’t want to lose them to other creatures before you return, you can pick them and place them in a paper bag to finish ripening. They won’t ripen up quite as sweet this way, but if it’s a choice between slightly-less-awesome fruit and no fruit at all, I think the decision is pretty easy to make. In my experience, this only works well if you’re pretty sure the fruit would ripen on the tree within the next few days.