North America’s Banana: The Pawpaw

Have you ever heard of the pawpaw? Maybe you’ve heard of it by its other names, which include “custard apple” and “poor man’s banana.” If it’s still unfamiliar you are, you represent most of modern America, but this fruit used to be incredibly popular and grows on the largest edible-fruit tree on the continent.

You can spot pawpaw trees (its scientific name is asimina triloba) growing in deep, fertile land such as by a river or stream bank, or in hilly areas. Pawpaws grow in 26 states and are most prolific in Appalachia. The trees usually grow up to 35-feet and sprout large leaves. The bark is light gray and if you scratch it, it goes off a bad smell. The flowers of the tree are also odorous – a bit yeasty or rotten – but the fruit is delicious.

Hikers often find paw paws in the wild

The pawpaw fruit weighs about a half pound and should be cut in half. The skin and seeds are both bitter, so don’t eat those. The pawpaw flesh is custard-like (thus its alternative name of “custard apple”) and tastes like a banana-mango hybrid. Native Americans dined on the fruit and also made ropes, mats, and fishing nets from the tree’s inner bark. When Europeans arrived, they also ate the fruit: George Washington would eat them raw for dessert.

Photo: Samara Linnell

Raw seems to be the best way to eat pawpaws, though you can use them as a replacement for bananas in baking, too. You won’t find the fruit in grocery stores, because they can’t be shipped, but you can find them in farmers market from August through September, if you’re lucky. Look for a green body without blemishes and a slight give, like you would look for in a peach, and a nice fruity smell. You should eat the fruit within 2-3 days if it’s at room temperature. In the fridge, they last about a week. The custardy flesh can also be frozen for up to a year, if you want to use them in smoothies or in baking.