The pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is a small tree with pointed green leaves and dark burgundy flowers that bears large yellowish-green to brown fruit, similar in appearance to a mango. And while it’s known for its exotic flavor, pawpaw fruit and the trees they grow on are actually native to the eastern U.S. and Canada.
The pawpaw is found by foraging and is rarely cultivated, possibly because the fruit ripens to the point of fermentation soon after being picked and must be eaten within weeks.
In its report entitled "Pawpaw: Small Tree, Big Impact," the National Park Service describes the pawpaw as having leaves and branches that deer avoid, and bearing a fruit that is “loved by all.” The pawpaw comes from a mainly tropical plant family and produces the largest edible fruit native to North America.
Darrin Nordahl, author of Eating Appalachia, writes of the pawpaw, "Pawpaw is a food of unparalleled flavor, which the first European colonists revered so highly they named towns, islands, and creeks in the fruit’s honor."
When asked what she likes most about the pawpaw, Charlotte Tolley, Executive Director of Nourish Knoxville, a non-profit that works to cultivate healthy communities by supporting relationships between local farmers, producers, and the public, told TravelAwaits, “It has a very unique taste -- and is similar to some tropical fruits, but native!”
Finding pawpaws can be a challenge, Tolley said, as “they aren't generally available in quantity, but are showing up more and more at farmers markets.”
You’ll find pawpaw fruit at farmers markets throughout Tennessee in September and October. The fruit begins to ripen in late summer, usually in August, then peaks in September and October. The fruit ripens quickly, so plan to use the pawpaws you buy in a recipe or eat them whole immediately after purchase.
You’ll find pawpaw trees growing in thickets along waterways in the eastern, southern, and midwestern United States. The trees are easiest to spot from the water, so a kayak or canoe is an ideal way to scope them out.
Once you find a pawpaw tree, lightly shake the tree to dislodge any ripe fruit from its branches. Local wildlife love the pawpaw fruit, and since the fruit fall easily once ripe, many will be consumed as they drop. The good news: You can shake the tree to harvest what is left.
Forage responsibly. Generally, if the fruit overhangs public sidewalks it is okay to pick. Check the Falling Fruit map, built by and for foragers, to locate fruit trees in Tennessee (or elsewhere!) that are free to forage. Foraging laws vary at the federal, state, and municipal levels, so check with a park ranger or property owner (if you find a pawpaw tree at your vacation destination) before foraging without permission.
In his blog post “Way Down Yonder in the Paw Paw Patch,” Jim Pfitzer writes that according to the literature, pawpaw favor open areas and bottomlands, but that he’s most commonly found them on wooded riverbanks, which, he writes, is “exactly what the Tennessee River Gorge is.”
For this reason, he suspects the River Gorge would be an ideal place to forage them.
Where else in Tennessee will you find pawpaws? According to the “Small Tree, Big Impact” report, “While ... forest monitoring shows pawpaw to be the most common sapling in the region, some parks have many more pawpaw saplings than others.”
Neal Smith, executive chef at Boone Street Market in Jonesborough, Tennessee, said, “Pawpaws: the fruit that shouldn’t exist where it does. Generally speaking, pawpaws are good to go in late August into October, which makes sense since they are a tropical fruit. You can find them all over the South and up into the Great Lakes region and in Pennsylvania. Notice the mention of the tropical fruit? The weird thing is they don’t grow in the coastal Deep South or in Florida -- there might be a few down there but it’s not their primary range -- and the biggest patch I’ve ever seen was in Cocke County, Tennessee.”
During September and October, seek out fresh pawpaws at farmers markets, but keep in mind that since they have a short shelf life quantities may be limited and usually sell out quickly.
Pawpaws can also be found on the menus of Tennessee restaurants where chefs prepare dishes using pawpaws and incorporate them into their seasonal menus.
Harvest Roots Ferments sells their kombucha made with pawpaws in grocery stores and at the Main Street Farmers Market on East Main Street in Chattanooga. Crabtree Farms in Chattanooga sells the fruit seasonally at the market as well.
Nolan Sherill of The Phoenix Pharmacy and Fountain in Knoxville has made pawpaw ice cream while the fruit is in season.
Trevor Stockton, executive chef of the restaurant at RT Lodge in Maryville, has incorporated pawpaws into his dishes at the restaurant before, but said they don’t use them every year as they can be temperamental. That said, when his produce guy has them available and they’re fresh, you can expect to see them on the menu.
Eager to try pawpaw-inspired cuisine in Tennessee and beyond, but still not sure what you’d be getting yourself into?
Imagine a cross between a banana and a mango, with the texture of custard.
In Eating Appalachia, Nordahl describes his first taste of the pawpaw: “I grabbed a plastic spoon and scooped out a modest helping of pulp, took a deep breath, and braced for my first taste. Wow. Mango was the first flavor my taste buds registered, and then came banana cream. I took another bite. Now I detected other, more subtle flavors, like sweet pineapple and a hint of vanilla. ...The flavor was otherworldly. Surely this cannot be an American fruit. This is tropical through and through -- a product of paradise.”
Although Chef Smith of Boone Street Market likes using pawpaws in recipes, his preference is to eat the fruit in its natural state. “As far as eating them, my favorite way is to just eat the fruit. It has a wonderful custard-like texture that tastes like you ran several tropical fruits together -- lots of mango. You can also use them in ice cream -- or any other custard -- and they work well in cake batter. And breads. Unfortunately, they don’t keep well, so use them when you find them.”
Smith told TravelAwaits, “I think the odd thing about the fruit is most people, even ones from the area, that are my age or younger don’t even know the fruit exists. It’s definitely something that is part of the history of the region and is absolutely delicious.”
Tolley concurs on eating the fruit whole. “They are excellent on their own -- just scoop out the flesh with a spoon! They are also excellent in baked goods, like quick breads and pie. I've had some lovely pawpaw hot sauce made by a farm in upper East Tennessee, similar to a mango hot sauce.”
If you’d like to try a pawpaw recipe on your own, here’s a method for canning pawpaw butter.
However you decide to enjoy this “otherworldly” fruit, whether whole or in recipes, head to Tennessee in the fall and prepare to be wowed by the pawpaw’s vibrant flavor and texture.
Photo Credit: Darrin Nordahl