The Appalachians are host to many indigenous plants and trees. One of the more interesting examples bears an edible fruit that has been compared to the banana. That tree is known as Asimina triloba, but the locals call it the much friendlier name Pawpaw. Let’s take a look at this curious plant.
What is a Pawpaw?
The Pawpaw is the largest edible fruit tree native to North America. The fruit it bears is also known as paw-paw, a.k.a. paw paw, graviola, soursop, and guanabana, but either way you say it, you will remember its unique taste.
The distinctive fruit is green on the outside, but on the inside, it is very pale yellow to white and fibrous. A pawpaw has a tropical taste, something you might not expect to find in the Appalachian Mountains.
You’ll notice that the pawpaw fruit is almost custard-like in appearance, not unlike a cross between a banana, a mango, and a cantaloupe. But if the plant is in season you’ll discover that the taste is fragrant and pleasant.
Just be sure to spit out the easily identifiable dark black seeds, since they are not quite so edible.
How to Know A Pawpaw is Ripe
You’ll know that a pawpaw is ripe by the way it hangs on the tree. It will look like it is ready to fall, and a slight tug will leave the fruit in your hand. Often you can locate a pawpaw tree in the wild at harvest time by the fruit laying on the ground. Pawpaws usually ripen from mid-August through October, and it will vary based on location.
You can also tell it is ripe by feeling the skin of the pawpaw. You should find that it has a slight give as you would expect from ripe stone or tropical fruit. If it has too firm of a surface, you should allow it more time to ripen before ingesting. But don’t wait too long, because it doesn’t last once it is in season.
Short Harvest Season
The Pawpaw has a narrow harvest life, so if you are lucky enough to find them in season, go ahead and dig in. They also have a short shelf life once harvested, but refrigeration may help to extend that a little. One thing for sure is that Pawpaws should be enjoyed when they are made available because they won’t last long.
The pawpaw is also easily bruised, so you will want to be careful with any harvested fruit. The last thing you’ll want is a sack full of ruined pawpaws.
It’s not just fine cuisine that makes pawpaws interesting – they also pack a lot of serious health benefits. The nutrients in the pawpaw help your body to metabolize other food you ingest. A single cup of pawpaw fruit gives you about 10 percent of the B-complex vitamins you need in a day. These vitamins include vitamin B-6, thiamin, riboflavin, folate acid, and niacin.
Pawpaw fruit contains many antioxidants that are a huge benefit to the body in controlling free radicals. A cup of it also provides about half of the Vitamin C you need in a day. Unlike many tree fruits, the pawpaw also contains many essential minerals.
You will find magnesium, potassium, and phosphorus in a pawpaw. It is also a good source for iron, containing 1.35 milligrams of the mineral in each cup. For reference, men and older women need about 8 milligrams of iron each day.
Not only can pawpaws provide vitamins and minerals, but they may also help when it comes to some forms of cancer. A study published in 2011 in “Nutrition and Cancer” found that 200 milligrams of raw Pawpaw fruit extract taken for five weeks showed signs of inhibiting cancer tumor growth.
The University of Nebraska also conducted a pawpaw cancer-related study in 2012. In their paper entitled “Cancer Letters” they found that the fruit appeared to stop the spread of cancer. In some cases, it even caused existing tumors to shrink.
Beneficial in Weight Control
Not content with health benefits like essential minerals, vitamins, and potential cancer-fighting abilities, pawpaws can also serve as a useful weight management tool. A cup of pawpaw fruit only has around 148 calories. It provides 2.25 grams of protein and less than one gram of fat. With the low calories and the satisfying taste, the pawpaw can be an effective weight control tool for those looking to shed a few pounds.
A pawpaw has more fiber than more common fruits like apples and pears. The fruit provides around 7.48 grams of fiber per cup. This bulk can make you feel fuller, which also helps in controlling excessive calories. More fiber in the diet has other benefits as well, including acting as an aid to your digestive system.
How to Eat a Pawpaw
With all the benefits that pawpaws offer, I’m sure you can’t wait to dig into some yourself. Pawpaws can be eaten raw just by biting into it and enjoying the unique taste. You can also use them in a food processor and make them into a smoothie or a pie. I have even heard of Pawpaw ice cream, something that I have yet to enjoy but is on my culinary bucket list.
Pawpaw pudding is another popular treat, and there are many bread recipes based on the fruit. If you have a sweet tooth, you can find pawpaw jams to use with your favorite bread and toast, of course.
Sliced pawpaws work great in many different fruit salads. You can also find many different drinks that incorporate them, in a varying degree of alcoholic content. Many dessert recipes feature the fruit, giving a pawpaw lover a rich menu of delicious treats to explore.
Famous People Enjoyed the Pawpaw
There have been some famous smart people that understood the advantages pawpaws offer. Lewis and Clark ate pawpaws on their expedition into the heart of America, and they often found them along rivers of the southern states. George Washington was fond of chilled pawpaw fruit. Thomas Jefferson, as much a scientist as a founding father, also cultivated them at his Monticello estate in Virginia.
Native American Uses for the PawPaw
Native Americans knew about the pawpaw as well. The Iroquois mashed the pawpaw fruit into small cakes, which they dried and stored. Doing this allowed the fruit to last much longer than it would otherwise, and it traveled well. The cakes were then mixed with water to make a sweet sauce served with cornbread.
The native Cherokee discovered a unique use for the inner bark of the Pawpaw. They would use it to make string and lightweight ropes, which they used in crafts, hunting, and fishing.
The pawpaw is a delicious fruit that is indigenous to the Appalachian Mountains, and many natives and immigrants have come to appreciate the versatile fruit over the generations. While the Pawpaw has been all but forgotten in modern times, it has been enjoying a small resurgence in recent years. But I’ll leave you with a word of caution – in some dialects pawpaw means “papaya,” so be sure you are eating the right fruit before passing judgment.