Discovering Indiana Paw Paws

A friend of mine and her husband recently acquired some acreage in rural Indiana and set out on the great adventure of discovering the bounty of the natural landscape of the land of which they were now the stewards. They’d heard of paw paws, as I’m sure every Hoosier has, and even knew some of their nicknames such as “Indiana banana,” but had never seen them nor had ever had the opportunity to taste them. When they ran across a small grove of several Paw paw trees at the edge of their woods they were elated. When they only found a few measly fruits out of all of the trees in the grove they were a bit let down. She sent me an email asking if I knew anything about paw paws… and I thought… heh…  Yeah… I know a bit about Paw paws. She asked a very simple question and I wrote her an essay in return. Below you will find our email correspondence and a few blurry cell phone pictures.

paw paw bunch
Cluster of Paw paws. Brown County, Indiana

“Hi Clyde,

I’ve been meaning to chat with you. My husband and I just bought a house in the country. We walked some of the property last week and found lots of paw paw trees. According to some light Googling, harvest season is just beginning. I’ve never harvested or eaten a paw paw before. What’s your experience with them? Would you be interested in some? Only a few trees had fruit already, but maybe it’s not too late for them. What else do I need to know about the Indiana banana?”

– Jennifer H – ”

” Hi Jennifer,

Congratulations on your new property! Yes, I do indeed have some experience with Paw Paws and yes I would love to have some, please! Botanically Paw paws are Asimina triloba and are the largest indigenous fruit in North America. Paw paw trees are related to magnolias, which you can observe when the tree is in bloom. It has magnolia-esqe blossoms that are very dark in color. However, many do not produce much fruit if any at all. The flowers give off an unpleasant smell to which most pollinating insects are not attracted. I have been in many seemingly healthy paw paw groves in peak season, surrounded by hundreds of the trees and found only a couple of fruits. I have also found groves where some trees had branches so full of fruit that a small shake of the thin trunk sent a barrage of mushy green grenades raining down all around me even though trees right next to it were completely barren. This is especially strange because they tend to reproduce asexually from root suckers like apple trees do, meaning most of the trees in a grove should be genetically identical. They also tend to do better in partial sun but they are relatively short trees and Indiana forests tend to be full of oak, hickory and walnut trees that will eventually fully shade them. To make a long story short, I wouldn’t be surprised if yours don’t produce very well, as that is very common. I also wouldn’t be surprised if each tree’s yield varied greatly from year to year. Also, I’d say that the harvest season is actually near the end. I have found the bulk of the paw paws that I have collected around here in mid-late august during the peak of the heat. I have been too busy to get out and check my spots this year, but I would imagine that the early cool off would only speed up the end of the season.

Ripe paw paw
Ripe fruit of A triloba

As far as the flavor goes, they’re… unique. I love them, my wife hates them. They’re green when you’d typically harvest them but like bananas they will ripen on the counter in a few days. They also darken like bananas and become kind of unattractive when ready, sort of a blotchy greyish blackish.

paw paw pulp
Freshly knocked out of a tree

The yellowish fruit pulp inside is very mushy which is where it gets its nickname of “Custard Apple.” It really does have a consistency quite akin to custard. There are a lot of seeds inside each fruit, so I either eat paw paws raw and spit the seeds or strain the pulp through a jelly bag or cheese cloth to separate the seeds. The flavor is very tropical with hints of mango and papaya, but with a je ne sais quoi all its own. Fresh paw paw pulp over a quality vanilla ice cream is just about the closest thing to heaven that I have ever experienced.

Feel free to let me know if you discover anything else of interest that you’d like to know about out there on your property. There are probably hundreds of great wild fruits, nuts, vegetables and mushrooms out there on your place. If you pay attention you’ll be discovering them for years to come.

All the best,

– Clyde – “

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