September is peak pawpaw season and the air is rich with the tropical scents of this strange native fruit.
The end of summer heralds the arrival of pawpaw (Asimina triloba) season in our region. These native trees produce sweet custardy fruit full of large brown seeds and tropical flavor. Here's how you can find them, and what to do with them once you locate a pawpaw patch. For starters, they appear throughout the temperate, deciduous forests of the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic.
Because of their delicate nature (they only last a few days once perfectly ripe), you won't find pawpaws in any commercial grocery stores. If you're lucky, you may find some at a farmers' market. Once you've tasted one, you'll start looking out for pawpaw trees every time you're near the woods. There's simply nothing like the exotic flavor of these strange specimens.
Head for the water
Rivers, creeks, even small streams, and lakes are all good places to find pawpaw trees. They thrive within that distinctly sandy humid environment. The next time you plan a hike, make note of any bodies of water to start your hunt. The good news is, once you find one pawpaw tree, others will be nearby. Animals tend to create dense patches of the trees by ingesting the fruit and spreading the seeds.
Use your nose
Starting in the first week of September, wild pawpaws ripen over a period of a few weeks. As you hike in the appropriate areas, you may begin to detect a sweet fermented scent of the fallen fruit. If the air smells like someone just spilled a piña colada nearby, you're in the right spot.
Look up, then look down
Pawpaw trees have very distinctive foliage with leaves that tend to point downward, but it's hard to mistake clusters of chubby green pawpaws when you spot them overhead. Don't pick them from the branches, though. You want ripe pawpaws that have already fallen on the ground. Take ones that are still green, with a yellowish cast. Black spots or bruises aren't a big deal; they tend to bruise as bananas do.
Only collect ripe fruit
Good pawpaw should give slightly when you squeeze it. The ideal harvest would be to gather what falls when you give a tree a good shake, but sometimes immature fruit falls as well. They won't ripen further, but they will continue to soften up, so keep fragrant pawpaws in the fridge until you're ready to eat them. Leave the others for the critters!
Learn how to keep a secret.
If you've found a pawpaw patch, try to keep your mouth shut about its precise location. Locals will gleefully recount tales of enormous pawpaw patches and the size of their best-foraged fruit. Like when you learn a good spot for delicious morel mushrooms, you'll want to share this information with just your nearest and dearest. Once a patch is widely known, you'll have to scope out new sources or beat the crowds.
**All photos by Sarina Petrocelly
For more information about pawpaw trees and how they occur in nature, check out this article by the National Park Service.
Do you go foraging for pawpaws near you? Are there any tips that we may have missed? Share them with us in the comments.