Picking Up Pawpaws & Eat Em!
In my world there are two kinds of pawpaws – the loveable grandfather that goes by that name (me included) and the ones you eat! And yes, we have both in South Mississippi. As Andrew Moore writes in his book entitled Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit, this small native tree is a member of a more tropical family of plants that produce fleshy, sweet-tasting fruit. In most of the eastern U.S., the larger pawpaw, Asimina triloba, is common in wet bottomland forests. For the gulf coast, the smaller shrub-sized species known as Dwarf Pawpaw, Asimina parviflora, grows in well-drained woodlands. Pawpaw’s large leaves give these plants a tropical look and once you spot them, are easily seen again.
As with many native plants, pawpaw fell out of our consciousness as we have spent far less time roaming woodlands and foraging for things to eat. Air conditioning has become our excuse, and some say ruin, for not venturing outdoors. As for Dwarf Pawpaw, you can witness this earliest of blooming plants in late-February to early March. The small, brown, leathery flowers emerge before the larger leaves. Once pollinated by small flies and beetles (yes beetles do pollinate many plants), small, greenish-yellow “bananas” appear, in clusters of 2-4 fruit, growing to 2-3 inches in size. Rock hard until right before they ripen, the fruit hang on until mid-July to early August, but be diligent in checking for ripeness, as they can go from hard to ripe overnight.
For our smaller coastal Pawpaw, they are best enjoyed by cutting open the greenish skin and sucking the sweet, yellow flesh from the large brown seeds. Small amounts of flesh can also be scraped from the inside of the skin and used to flavor homemade ice cream or anything else you care to try. Pawpaw has a banana-like flavor and texture.
Apart from humans and other mammals that eat the fruit, this shrub is the host plant for the Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly. This small, black and white-striped beauty emerges in late spring from a small, squatty, striped caterpillar that eats by night. Look for them under dead leaves on the ground at the base of the plant during the day and munching on leaves after dark. So whether you have ever heard the lyrics “Picking up pawpaws and putting em in your basket”, or not, look for these attractive shrubs next time you venture out of the air conditioning.