Growing on roadsides, creek banks, the edges of forests, or maybe even in a wooded area near your home, is one of Kentucky’s native treasures: the pawpaw tree.
The pawpaw is the largest fruit native to the United States. Maturing around mid-September, these soft, pale green fruits occur alone or in groups. You can tell they are ripe when the skin turns slightly yellow, and the fruit pulls easily off the branch. Some say that a pawpaw is at its best the moment it falls naturally from the tree, but you’ll need to be quick to pick them up before they are found by forest animals hunting for their soft, sweet flesh.
The texture of a pawpaw is almost jelly-like; it’s no wonder that one of its nicknames is the “custard apple.” Slicing the fruit in half and eating it with a spoon is probably easier than trying to take a bite out of it. Inside, the sweet, yellow, gooey flesh has a distinct tropical flavor. Hints of banana, pineapple, mango, and melon will have you taking bite after bite to fully experience its complex palette.
The tree itself has a pleasing pyramidal shape when exposed to full sun. It can tolerate shade, but lack of sufficient light results in leggier growth and fewer fruits. Its bark and twigs contain natural insecticides known as acetogenins, which are lethal to aphids, midges, and other insect pests. One notable exception to this is the caterpillar of the stunning zebra swallowtail butterfly, which feeds exclusively on pawpaw leaves. The toxins then are transferred to the butterfly, making it unappetizing to birds or other animals that would eat it. The characteristic black and white striping on the butterfly’s wings are the reason for its name, and advertise to would-be predators that it is not a tasty meal. It is important to note that, besides being harmless to humans, these natural toxins are not present in the fruit.
The Pawpaw Festival, which takes place every September in Albany, Ohio (ohiopawpawfest.com), might be a bit far for you to try a taste of this interesting piece of produce, so you might ask around at the Owensboro Regional Farmers Market to see if any of our local suppliers would be able to provide you with a sample.
The food industry is currently exploring the use of pawpaw in various products. Craft breweries are using the pawpaw’s unusual flavors to add a new angle to their lines of fruit-inspired beers. Upland Brewing Company and Jackio’s Brewery, both in Ohio, produce a pawpaw golden sour ale and a pawpaw wheat that are worth a pint or two. Other uses for the pawpaw include jams, jellies, smoothies, or even ice cream. The thing is, pawpaws spoil very quickly, meaning that storing and shipping them is unfeasible, and therefore unprofitable. It’s unlikely you will see these popping up in supermarkets any time soon, so foraging in and around Daviess County is your best bet. If you’re looking for a totally different taste this fall, head to your local woods and pick yourself some pawpaws.