It all started with a church auction item – an opportunity to paw paw forage with an experienced forager. I had no idea what I would be foraging for, but it sounded like an interesting experience.
These many months later, the season for paw paw foraging had arrived. Instructions were to meet and come prepared with boots, bug spray and drinking water.
I had, since my successful auction bid, done enough research to know that the paw paw is a fruit that grows as an understory plant in several states from the Atlantic through Ohio. As it turns out, Native Americans harvested the fruit, as did explorers following suit, craving the sweet juicy fruit in their diet. According to many sources including Kentucky State University, the paw paw is rich in nutrients.
Our foraging began in a forest section of the Susquehannock State Park. After walking down several trails and into the brush, our leader, Laura, identified the paw paw tree.
The paw paw has large exotic-looking leaves unlike most trees in east coast forests. We spotted our first fruit overhead.
When the paw paw is ripe enough, it can be ever so gently plucked from the branch. For fruit that is out of reach, a gentle shaking of the tree’s trunk will release the fruit that falls to the ground with a thump, or – if you are quick enough – into the bag you are holding. If you are not quick enough, you may get a surprise bop on the head (don’t ask how I know).
The taste of the paw paw was everything I had heard described. We gently peeled our first paw paws then stood enjoying the flavor of the pulp, somewhere between the sweetness of a banana and the wildness of a guava.
The kidney bean-sized seeds were spit out.
I also understood why the fruit is not cultivated to any great extent, as very few paw paws appear on a single tree and they are a delicate fruit, ripening in a short time window. I’m told you may find some farmer’s markets where a stand may have them available for short periods of time and at a very dear price.
Paw paws tend to grow in colonies, the largest reaching to the sky peaking out of the forest’s canopy, with less mature trees sheltering underneath and a myriad of newer growth along the forest floor.
After filling our bags and leaving a generous amount of paw paws for other foragers, we did some initial sorting and talked potential use. There are recipes for everything from quick bread to beer.
As for me, my paw paw cache will be frozen in small amounts to be used in smoothies along with some frozen slices of rhubarb. Those exotic summery tasting fruits will be perfect for adding nutrients and a sweet and sour taste to the post-run smoothie on chilled winter mornings.
Do you have experience foraging in the forest? Have you used paw paws in cooking, baking – or brewing?