Native Edible Plants of the Northeastern US: Pawpaws
A Humble Native Fruit
Also called the custard apple or the poor man’s banana, and known to scientists as asimina triloba, the paw paw may derive its name from the papaya, to which its fruit bears a few similarities. Crack one open, though, and you’ll find that the paw paw fruit has a creamy texture and flavor all its own, one redolent of the golden, late summer days when the it finally comes into season.
Beneath its spotted and ugly green skin, the paw paw has a golden interior spotted with fat, dark seeds like a watermelon's. The flesh of the paw paw is creamy, almost custard like in texture, and its flavor has been described as a cross between a banana and a mango, with perhaps a little pineapple thrown in.
What’s more, if you live in the northeastern United States, the paw paw grew up right in your backyard. The paw paw tree is one of the native plants of the United States, and is indigenous to the northeast region.
There are few fruits more all-American than the paw paw. Before there was apple pie, there was the paw paw. Chilled paw paws were a favorite dessert of George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson grew paw paw trees in his orchard at Monticello.
Its tropical flavor and creamy texture have been making its fans rave for centuries, and it's a powerhouse of protein, healthy fats, and potassium.
So why are so few people eating paw paws?
Paw Paw Nutritional Facts
One paw paw contains 80 calories, 1.2 grams of protein, 1.2 grams of fat, 18.8 grams of carbohydrates, and 2.6 grams of dietary fiber. Of the fat contained in one paw paw, 32% are saturated, 40% are monounsaturated,
Paw paws contain all of the essential amino acids. They also contain almost as much potassium and calcium as a banana. One paw paw will provide 7.9% of your RDA of calcium.
For more information on the nutritional content of paw paws, visit this page at Kentucky State University, the experts on the paw paw.
Where To Find Paw Paws
There has been a revival of interest in paw paw cultivation among organic and small scale farmers, so if you want a paw paw, your best bet is to visit your local farmer’s market bright and early.
In season (late August to early September) you may also be able to find them at small scale and organic grocery stores. Look for a place which sources produce from local farmers and foragers.
If you’re more adventurous or if your famer’s market has sold out of paw paws, ask your farmstand or search online. Paw paw fanatics often organize foraging expeditions.
The Paw Paw: An Endangered Fruit
Part of the reason why the paw paw isn’t more well known is because the paw paw tree is not what you could call an outstanding evolutionary success. In New York, the paw paw plant is currently a threatened species. In New Jersey, the paw paw is an endangered species.
One of the limiting factors are the growing conditions of the paw paw tree. It grows on flood plains and riverbanks, where it has plenty of water and shade and the right amount of humidity, heat, and surrounding undergrowth that it needs to thrive. In the northeast states, this means that the paw paw tree grows primarily in the Delaware and Hudson River valleys.
Another limiting factor is the smell of the paw paw plant’s bark and flowers, which is carrion like and unpleasant enough that it has trouble attracting pollinating insects, which are attracted by strong flower scents. This leads to low fruit production and limits how big any given paw paw patch can grow.
On top of that, the paw paw tree takes about 20 years to reach full maturity and begin producing fruit. This extremely low yield makes the paw paw plant an impractical one for any farmer.
To add insult to injury, the paw paw fruit is one ugly fruit. Its skin is an unappealing spotty yellow green, and it has a lumpy, irregular shape. If you don't know what a paw paw is like on the inside chances are that the outside might scare you away.
Finally, a ripe paw paw has a shelf life of two or three days once picked from the tree. Kept in the fridge, a paw paw fruit will last up to a week, no more. It’s also delicate and bruises easily, which means that it can't be shipped any distance. The paw paw is a stubbornly local fruit.
How To Eat A Paw Paw
The paw paw fruit is most often eaten right out of hand. To eat it, split the fruit in half, exposing the interior. Remove the seeds – they and the paw paw skin are inedible. Then, if the paw paw is ripe, the flesh should be soft enough to scoop out with a spoon!
Other ways to eat a paw paw:
The paw paw is also excellent in a fruit salad. Use it as a substitute for banana or mango, or even in addition to either.
For long term preservation, the paw paw can be made into jam, though it has a low pectin content and will need some added pectin to set.
Due to its similar flavor and consistency, the paw paw can be used as substitute for banana in many baked goods which call for it. A puree of the flesh can also be used instead of applesauce as a fat replacement in many baked goods. Try swapping it into your favorite low fat banana bread recipe in place of both the banana and the applesauce and see what happens!
Finally, because the paw paw is higher in fat than most fruits and has such a naturally creamy texture, it’s ideal for making into ice cream!
- 2 lbs paw paw pulp, pureed
- 1 tbsp lemon or lime juice, freshly squeezed
- 3/4 cup light corn syrup
- 1 vanilla bean, scraped
- 1 tbsp bourbon, good quality
- 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
- Note: I say 'good quality' bourbon because it's not going to be cooked and you're going to taste it, so while it doesn't have to be top shelf, make sure it isn't the kind of bourbon you can strip wallpaper with, either.
- Place paw paw pulp in a food processor with lemon juice and bourbon and process for 10 to 15 seconds on high speed. Add corn syrup and vanilla bean paste and turn processor on to medium-high speed. With the processor running, slowly pour in the cream. Process until smooth.
- Chill your paw paw cream in the refrigerator for one to two hours, then transfer the mixture to an ice cream maker and process according to manufacturer's instructions.
- If you don't have an ice cream maker, don't worry. You can still do it the old fashioned way.
- To make ice cream the old fashioned way:
- After you've added the cream and finished processing the whole mixture together, pour it into a deep baking dish or durable plastic bowl and stick it in the freezer.
- Then, after forty-five minutes, take the dish out of the freezer. You’ll see that your future ice cream has started freezing near the edges, while remaining more slushy towards the center. Mix it vigorously with a sturdy rubber spatula or a wooden spoon, breaking up any frozen sections and beating them into the non-frozen sections so that the mixture is as even as you can make it - without spraining your wrist.
- Then return the mixture to the freezer and repeat this process every half hour or so for the next two to three hours, or until what you have in the dish starts to look like ice cream!