Thursday, October 13, 2011

Picking Up Paw Paws

Where, oh where is Dear Little Nellie?
Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch.
Pickin' up paw paws and puttin' em in a basket...

I heard these words (especially the last line) throughout my childhood, as my mother liked to sing it.
However, I had no clue what a paw paw was, although they grow wild here in Kansas and throughout the Midwest and on eastward.

Although my mother seemed to enjoy singing this song, I don't know that my parents ever went out picking up paw paws and putting them in a basket -- unless they did so in their youths.
This pencil gives you an idea of the paw paw seed's size. We plan to use these
as beads. However, I might try to sprout one, just for fun.

Paw paw, Asimina triloba, is a small fruiting tree that generally grows in colonies, spreading by root suckers. It is definitely a temperate zone fruit, although its large leaves and soft, pulpy fruit make it look like something tropical. The seeds are large, an inch or so across, and apparently easy to sprout. However, wild seedlings from seed apparently are rare.

The fruit are several inches long and a couple of inches in diameter, although domesticated cultivars can produce much larger fruit. I apologize for not having a photo of the pawpaw fruit, but you can find one here. They are not very pretty -- unappetizing looking, if you ask me. They start out green and generally turn yellowish as they ripen. As they sit on your counter, the skin starts to blacken.
Inside, however, is a lovely, creamy, sweet flesh.

Paw paw flowers.
The flavor of the paw paw is wonderful, but has an undertone that makes it something I could not eat a lot of. You can use the paw paw as you would bananas, in breads, ice cream, pie, custard and even in a jam. Kentucky State University, which leads the way in research on paw paw cultivation, offers a number of recipes here.  I enjoyed simply spreading the custardy flesh on a piece of toast.

For the first three years that I lived here, I was intrigued by this small tree with large leaves that I saw in the woods nearby, but I did not know what it was. This past spring, I saw trees with large, purple, bell-shaped flowers. My gut instinct said, "fruit," and then it said "paw paw." (see my May 3, 2011 post)

Pretty much all of our other wild fruits, from the diminutive wild strawberry strewn across a meadow, to the rambling blackberries and black raspberries, to the thickets of wild plum are members of the rose family. Thus, their flowers bear resemblance to apple blossoms, which were in bloom at the same time I found the paw paw flowers.

Apple blossoms.
I was excited when I saw that our little trees formed a few fruit. But later, when I went to see if they were ripening I found none on the trees. I couldn't see any on the ground. Wild animals also love paw paw fruit, so I imagine some raccoon had a feast.

A week or so later, friends brought a few paw paws to us, allowing me to have my first taste of this native fruit.

Because paw paw seedlings are sensitive to sunlight, the trees generally can be found in the understory of established woodlands, and the human habit of clear cutting has resulted in a considerable reduction of the paw paw population. As the trees cannot re-establish in full sun exposed areas, although mature trees will thrive and even produce more fruit in open areas.

The paw paw fed explorers Lewis and Clark in their adventures across the new world. It also was an important food crop for many Native American tribes. The zebra swallowtail larvae feed exclusively on paw paw leaves, which contain toxins that confer protection from predation to the larvae and adult forms.

The same toxins cause other insects to steer clear of paw paw leaves, so the trees are an organic grower's dream. However, the fruit are easily damaged and have a short shelf life (2-3 days at room temperature, a week in the fridge) so are most likely to be found in season at farmers markets and roadside stands. Freeze them for future use.

Paw paw fruit is quite nutritious, containing more protein than other fruit, a number of fatty acids and high levels of many nutrients, such as vitamin C. The fruit and bark have both shown promise in preventing or reducing certain cancers.

The paw paw (Asimina triloba) goes by various other common names, most of which include the word "banana," such as "prairie banana," "Kentucky banana," and so on. Do not confuse this paw paw with the two or so other fruits that are also referred to as paw paw, which includes the very tropical papaya. But do pick some up when you see them at the farmers market. They ripen late September and early October. Once you try them, you may want to head down to the paw paw patch to pick them up and take them home.
The large leaves of the paw paw are about eight inches long. You can see that
some zebra swallowtail larvae have chewed on these.

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