Pawpaw patch: Native fruit tree is common sight at Thornwood Preserve

By Joe Whitfield

The pawpaw tree is one of the most prolific trees we have at Thornwood Reserve. Related to the Magnolia tree and found throughout Indiana, you’ll notice it growing in the bottom land close to the creek, where it tends to grow in colonies.

A small tree seldom growing over 30 feet tall, the leaves are simple, getting 6 to 12 inches long. The flowers appear in late April to early May, these are about 1½ inches and burgundy colored. When bruised, the leaves may emit a disagreeable odor and the flowers don’t smell very good either.

The natural compounds that keep deer from eating the tree are being used for cancer fighting agents and insecticides.

The wood from the tree is weak and soft, however, the pioneers used it to carve spoons, ladles and fishing bobbers.

The upside to this tree is that it bears edible fruit. This fruit will get about 6 inches long and changes to a yellowish-brown to black in late September or early October.

When that happens, grab it quick — once the fruit starts to ripen it becomes food for the opossum, wild turkeys, raccoons and foxes. So, it’s a race to see who can get to the ripened fruit first. The fruit will grow only on the trees that have adequate sunlight.

Once picked they will ripen in 2 to 3 days; they can be stored in the refrigerator for a week if fully ripe. If not ripe they can be stored for up to three weeks in the refrigerator. Take them out two or three days before you need them.

The fruit does contain at least four large seeds; however, most trees grow as suckers from a parent plant, which makes digging up and transplanting difficult. So, if you get a seed plant it in full sun, it is sensitive to heat, drought and salt but also has no known disease or insect problems.

The pawpaw is known as the “Indiana Banana.” It can be eaten either raw or cooked and can be substituted in any custard-type dessert. To my way of thinking, they taste like vanilla custard. While they’re good, I wouldn’t fight a rabid raccoon for them.

Those of you older may remember the song “Way Down Yonder in the Pawpaw Patch.” This is an old folk song that has so many different verses that you’ll just have to look it up and pick your favorite.

However, I will include a sample recipe; for more, just use a good search engine and you will come up with more recipes than you can shake a stick at.

So, next fall I’ll meet you down at the pawpaw patch, if we can beat the animals.

Here’s one way to eat them plus a few instructions:

Pawpaw Squares

Preparing the pulp

Using a ripe pawpaw (soft like a banana), cut it in half and scoop out the pulp, pitch the seeds or save and plant. Squish with bare hands through a colander set over a large bowl. A conical strainer with a wooden pestle works very well too. If you have a food mill, they can be processed through it.

Ingredients

2 cups of sugar

1½ cups of flour

1 tsp of baking powder

½ tsp cinnamon

3 eggs

2 cups of pawpaw pulp

1½ cups of milk

½ cup of melted butter

Dash of salt

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease a 13x9x2 inch glass baking dish. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients. In the center of this, mix the eggs. Whisk until fully mixed. Put in all other ingredients and mix well. Bake 50 minutes. When cooled, cut in squares and serve with whipped cream.

Joe Whitfield is a naturalist and gardener for the Greenfield Parks and Recreation Department. Send comments to dr-editorial@greenfieldreporter.com.