By Amber Veverka
Paw paws- those mysterious forest fruits that taste like part-banana, part-mango - are ripe across the Carolinas Piedmont.
The fruits look a bit like knobby, misshapen mangoes, and when ripe are quite soft. Inside, they have a custardy yellow pulp with large, shiny black seeds.
“These are an understory forest tree with a very distinct leaf and distinct fruit. They are a favorite fruit of many wildlife, including raccoons and opossums,” said Stephen Hutchinson, nature center manager at Latta Nature Preserve. “I tried the fruit for first time last Friday. One of our staff prepared them. It kind of reminded me a little bit of a mango – I loved it.”
Sharp-eyed hikers can spot patches of the trees in the moist lowland areas of woods – yes, there really are paw paw patches, just like the old folk song says – which are easily identifiable by their long, drooping oblong leaves. The fruit clusters are beneath the leaves, and green until ripe. As long as the fruit has a bit of give to it, it’s fine to pick. Ripe, they have a rich scent of pineapple.
The fruits grow throughout the South and Midwest – another name for them is Michigan banana or Hoosier banana – and the botanical family the fruits come from is actually a tropical one, with the paw paw its only northern member, according to Magicland Farm in northern Michigan, which grows the paw paw commercially. While in the north, paw paws take until autumn to ripen, in the Charlotte area, you can find and eat them by late August.
It’s possible, but difficult, to get a patch of your own started, says Charlotte native plant expert Carol Buie-Jackson.
“They’re notoriously hard to transplant. They’re a great native [tree]. If you have one naturally occurring, well done,” said Buie-Jackson, head of Habitat and Wildlife Keepers in Matthews. “It’s just a wonderful Southern tree and fruit and one of the things that for people who grew up in the South we remember, because we ate them as kids. They’ve kind of been forgotten about.”
Paw paw trees are the host plant of the striking zebra swallowtail butterfly – and a great place to view the butterflies is the Broad River Greenway near Boiling Springs, N.C.
Watch a Youtube video of someone singing “Way Down Yonder in the Paw Paw Patch” while standing in an actual paw paw patch.
If you find the fruit and want to do something more with it than eat it out of hand, Kentucky State University has a collection of recipes to try.
Fully ripe paw paws won’t last more than a day or two on the counter but will keep a bit longer in the refrigerator. You can freeze the pulp to cook with later. Paws paws are very nutritious: According to Purdue University, they are high in vitamin C, magnesium, iron, copper, and manganese.