Pawpaws Are Our Bananas
Should you go walking along a bottomland stream in Rappahannock County, you are likely to encounter pawpaws (or paw-paws or paw paws). You may not notice them though – unless you paid attention – because they are small under story trees that grow in clumps. Nothing majestic about a pawpaw tree! Blooming in April or early May, the pawpaw hangs its maroon bell-shaped flowers on bare branches. Its fairly large drooping leaves are vaguely tropical looking. Its fruit is decidedly exotic looking – a reminder that the pawpaws’ cousins are tropical denizens (think Custard Apples or Cherimoya). However, the plant (Asimina triloba) is firmly native to our area, the Northern Piedmont and, more broadly to eastern North America; it is the only larval host of the Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly – another sign, if you see lots of Zebra swallowtails in summer , to look for trees in the vicinity. The fruit ripen in September – and you do have to look for them! The wild trees are typically shy fruiters (its flowers fertilized by carrion flies). The fruit hang down toward the branch tips, singly or in small clusters, looking like small, vaguely kidney-shape, mangoes – somewhat difficult to spot.
We just went checking on the ones I had noticed earlier in the summer. Still there – for now. I picked a few that seemed softer than most, but after tasting one, I’ll wait to pick more. The flesh is creamy, and when ripe, reminiscent of bananas, mangoes, guava – or cherimoya. No surprise that some of its common names are Hoosier banana, prairie banana, Kentucky bananas, Ozark banana etc. I’ll wait until there is more black showing and the fruit is softer before picking more (if raccoons or other creatures don’t beat me to it): just like real banana, I like my Hoosier banana ripe! The ones I picked will continue to ripen inside – again just like bananas.
How do you eat them? With a spoon…