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Rediscovering the sweet pawpaws

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By Ted Manzer
Columnist

Friday, September 8, 2017

Pawpaw is a native fruit that is common but easily overlooked. Nearly every fall people ask me about these curious fruits but they’re often hesitant to try them. Ripe fruit are shaped like green link sausages. They have soft bright yellow very sweet flesh and curious large dark flattened seeds.

Flavor is somewhat similar to a combination of banana and mango. They’re also juicy and soft like mangoes. Some people confuse pawpaw with papaya but I consider them nothing alike. They’re not related taxonomically. The fruits don’t have similar flavor or texture and seeds are totally different.

Fruit size can vary tremendously. Around here they usually weigh just a few ounces each, but in other parts of their range they can get as large as a pound.

According to the literature they are rare near the coast, but we have pockets around here that are thick with pawpaws. Fruit set might be poor but plants are plentiful. They’re also easy to spot even though trees are small.

Pawpaw trees have large dark green leaves that emerge from stems singly. They are one of the last trees to leaf-out in the spring. In this area most trees are found on sandy soils near the edge of swamps. In the Midwest they’re considered an upland species.

There’s good reason why fruit set is often poor around here. Pawpaws often spread from root suckers. That means that plants are genetically identical or essentially the same tree. Pawpaws must be cross pollinated to set fruit and pollinators might not spread from one patch of trees to another.

Pawpaws flower in the spring. This means it’s important that we have plenty of spring pollinators. Bees are great pollinators for most crops and they often travel great distances, but they seldom visit pawpaws. Instead, pawpaw flowers are pollinated by beetles and various flies. Generally these insects don’t range very far. Consequently, pollination can be inadequate resulting in poor fruit set.

Assuming we are able to find a good supply of fruit we are met with another dilemma. Pawpaws don’t keep very long. Once fruits are ripe we must eat or process them. We can pick them when they’re not quite ripe and let them ripen like we do tomatoes.

Assuming we have enough to process, we must first separate the soft flesh from the skin and seeds. A colander can get the process started but usually handwork is also necessary.

A pair of rubber gloves makes the process less messy and more sanitary. Usually seeds need to be hand cleaned for higher yield. The resulting pulp resembles a puree. It freezes very well. I’ve never tried it, but I bet it would be great in ice cream, sorbet, or a smoothie.

I’ve modified a banana bread recipe and it was pretty good. When I get another batch I’m going to modify my sweet potato pie recipe.

According to my research, flavor is best preserved when the fruit is prepared in unheated creations. Perhaps folding pureed pawpaws into vanilla pudding and serving it chilled in a pie shell would be tasty.

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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