By Christine Tailer
A few weeks ago, as Greg and I were driving down the creek road after running errands up town, we saw a bright green pawpaw lying in the middle of the road. I had been keeping a lookout, knowing that it was just about pawpaw time, that brief time of year between the greens of summer and the reds and golds of fall.
I was curious how fruitful the pawpaw harvest would be this year. Even though the trees had flowered in the spring, in abundance, the never-ending spring rains had knocked many, if not most, of the purple flowers to the ground. Throughout the spring and summer, I looked for the growing fruit, but I had seen very few. I wishfully reasoned that this was because the fruit were still small, and difficult to find in the forest canopy. When pawpaw flowers first start to grow into fruit, in clusters of two to four, the pawpaw look like small lima beans, and even in the best years are difficult to find.
I continued to look all through the summer, hoping to see the fattening fruit that should have been turning into oblong florescent green spheres. In time they would become large smooth-skinned fruits, some the size of my hand. I found only a few clusters.
By mid-September, I knew that I should have been seeing the trees’ slender branches bending down under the weight of the large ripe fruit, but I did not. While walking or driving up the valley road, we should have been seeing oodles of pawpaw, just waiting for us to pick and eat right there on the spot, but no such fruit were to be found. Oh, how I wished for that sweet scent to fill the air, and the banana custard taste to slide across my tongue.
We know of four large pawpaw patches in our section of the valley, one on the hill behind our cabin, and three down along the road that runs by the creek. I have noticed that the valley’s pawpaw grow best by the edge of the woods, where their slender trunks are still protected by the surrounding trees, yet the fruit can get enough sunshine to grow fat and ripen. I searched every grove, but other than the few fruit that we found along the road, the trees were bare, and then their leaves began to turn yellow and fall. In total, I only managed to harvest about two dozen of the fruit, when in years past I had easily gathered several bushel baskets filled to overflowing.
I not only love the sweet taste and scent of pawpaw, I find them a very interesting fruit. They are native to the eastern United States, and their deep purple flowers are pollinated by flies, and as such, are not particularly pleasant to sniff. The fruit usually ripens, like clockwork, in mid-September, and on foggy mornings when I first step outside, I am struck by the way their sweet scent fills the valley air.
Seasons past, when Greg and I have walked along the valley road, we simply stop when we see a fallen pawpaw lying on the ground. Sometimes all we’ll see is a scattering of pawpaw seeds, remnants of a wildlife dinner. We then look up overhead and find the fruit hanging in their tight clusters. All I need to do, is reach up, and pick several of the low hanging fruit, only gathering those that feel soft and smooth. With just the slightest pressure, I can feel that the fruit within is ripe. Greg pulls out his pocket knife and slices away the thin skin. He then carefully cuts off a sliver of the yellow fruit. It has the consistency of thick custard, but with care I am able to pick it off Greg’s blade and place it in my mouth. The sweet flavor of banana fills the mouth.
If I decide to harvest large quantities of pawpaw, I simply stand at the base of one of the slender trees and gently shake its trunk while looking down. I know I am successful when I hear the steady plop of the ripe fruit as they drop to the ground. I have learned not to look up as I shake, for on one such occasion, a pawpaw fell squarely on my face, but with proper shaking technique, I can easily gather all the ripe fruit I wish, in no time at all.
I have never made pawpaw preserves, but a dear friend shared the sweet spread with me. I have, however, made many loaves of pawpaw bread, that really taste no different than banana bread. I freeze these loaves, and then thaw them for later wintertime enjoyment. I have also brewed several batches of pawpaw wine, which is actually a dry white wine, curious because the fruit are so very sweet, and I have frozen pawpaw pulp. Even though the pulp turns brown, it still tastes as though freshly picked, and can be made into wine, or bread, or preserves, but alas, I will not be doing these things this year.
This year, I suppose, I’ll just have to wait for to next year’s sweet pawpaw time. I have no doubt that it will be a perfect pawpaw season.