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Hunting the Michigan Pawpaw
by George Hedgepeth
The Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) of south west Michigan is rather odd tree. The other relatives of its tribe are all tropical, such as the custard apple, the ylang-ylang of Southeast Asia, the cherimoya, and the soursop. The pawpaws of Michigan are truly expatriates, cut off from the warm southern climes of the Caribbean, and Central America, and stuck in the path of cold north winds and snow. I do declare that I sympathize mightily with them on certain February nights.
They are odd for other reasons too. The very large leaves of this plant, when bruised, smell just like diesel fuel. This helps to explain why insect pests and even browsing mammals leave the foliage of the pawpaw alone! In fact, a tea of the leaves is useful as a home-brew insecticide for gardeners. The wood of this small, colony forming tree is soft and light, suitable for carving fishing plugs or for friction fire production. The bark is extremely fibrous, and can make fine rope or twine. It is the host species for the caterpillars of the Zebra Swallowtail butterfly. The most interesting thing about pawpaws to foragers is their wonderful flavor.
Describing flavors is a task full of pitfalls, but people who try them liken the pawpaw to a sweet banana mixed with something a bit “fruitier”, like a mango or a peach. Pawpaws are rich, quite sweet, and certainly different from most wild fruit available in the Great Lakes area. In fact, some people find them almost TOO sweet. Combined with their soft, custard-like texture, this makes them ideal to use in baked products like pawpaw bread. Want a recipe? Simply try a favorite banana bread mix and replace the bananas with an equal volume of Asimina triloba! They are a good base for home made ice cream, muffins, and cakes. They are a natural for fruit smoothies. Mixed with chili and other spices, they can make chutney reminiscent of the papaw’s Asian cousins.
Pawpaws are also a rich source of nutrients. They have loads of potassium, magnesium, iron, and even a good amount of protein. They contain vitamin C and some B vitamins as well. Rather low in moisture for a fruit, they are relatively high in calories- that is not a bad thing!
How does one find these large (some over a pound!) and extravagantly flavored west Michigan treasures? You will find these small trees growing in colonial groups in rich, moist, black soil that gets good sun at least part of the day. Creek banks are often ideal. Look for slender trees with smooth, light grey bark. The huge leaves turn bright yellow early in the autumn- about when the fruit is ripe. Once you have found a thicket, shake the trees and watch out! The fruit will come raining out.
They have a short shelf like once they are ripe, so eat some immediately. Pawpaw puree can be canned or frozen. I suspect that pawpaw fruit-leather would be a big hit, but I need an intrepid reader to do this experiment and let us know how it works!
Pawpaws are a real treasure, so seek them out. Better yet, take a friend and a gaggle of kids along and REALLY enjoy the hunt for these large, flavorful, and nutritious fruits. They are a spectacular example of west Michigan’s natural wealth.
See related article: A Forager's Bibliography
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Briar Patch Outdoors
219 Holmes Street
Durand MI 48429
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