As summer begins to wind down, a local native fruit is only just beginning to show signs of ripening. You may not have ever heard of our somewhat obscure resident fruit tree, Asimina Triloba. It’s a fruit that goes by many names: Banango, Asimoya, Indian Banana, Poor Man’s Banana, Prairie Banana, Hoosier Banana, Hillbilly Mango, Quaker Delight, and (most commonly) Pawpaw. Peculiar oblong fruits embedded with formidably-sized seeds give way to rich, creamy, sugary sweet flesh of an almost indescribable, unique flavor. Some say it tastes like a mixture of mango, pineapple, banana, and cantaloupe. Due to its incredibly finite shelf-life, it’s usually consumed fresh or processed immediately into ice creams, custards, jams, and pies. The flesh makes an excellent substitute for banana in almost any recipe.
The only cold-hardy member of the otherwise tropical and sub-tropical “custard-apple,” family, the pawpaw is the largest edible fruit endemic to North America. Something of an artifact, it has been speculated that its ancestors survived the splitting of Pangea and subsequently adapted to a temperate climate. Its ancient heritage provides some explanation for its many quirks, such as its large stoney seeds and foul-smelling flowers. Remarkably, flies are the primary pollinators, having evolved before the advent of pollinating bees. The massive, hard-shelled seeds adapted to pass through the digestive systems of mastodons and giant sloths, using them as a means of transportation and dispersal. Since the extinction of these fruit-consuming megafauna, the pawpaw can credit its survival in part to Native Americans and early settlers. The nutritious fruits were highly prized as well as the fibrous inner bark which was used to make mats, ropes, fishing nets, and more.
Unfortunately, the pawpaw has not seen very much in the way of successful cultivation. Many named varieties are wild selections, due in no small part to the fact that it takes a staggering 7 years for a seedling (ungrafted tree on its own roots,) to reach maturity. The fruits are very perishable, with an extremely limited shelf-life of 2-3 days. The only way to be certain the fruit is ripe is to wait for it to fall from the tree, making it a less than ideal crop for production. If you’re lucky, you might just spot one at one of our markets. Grab it up and be sure to eat it fast, as they simply don’t last!
(For more pictures, plus recipe ideas, check out this post on SeriousEats.com)