At this time of year in Sewanee, if you are lucky and wise, you may find yourself in a grove of luscious tropical fruit called paw paws. This member of the custard- apple family is not as well known as its relatives farther south, like the cherimoya and soursop, and many people walk right past the clusters of splotchy, pale- green fruit hiding in the fall woods. However, paw paws have appealed to all manner of creatures– mastodons, European colonizers, foxes, Cherokee people– for thousands of years. The extent of their presence in American lore may be surprising given their absence in grocery stores, but they remain a steady favorite for fans of wild foods.
Assistant Director of Dining Caroline Thompson speaks highly of the fruit’s flavors and textures, comparing it to a “delicious banana and mango custard.” The paw paw’s obscurity is often attributed to its uncomely appearance (the best ones are blackened and bruised) but Thompson says,”looks can be deceiving. Now, I think they’re beautiful, since I’ve experienced the taste.”
The paw paw (Asimina triloba) does have a way of transcending cosmetic beauty, which is not to say that the tree as a whole lacks looks. In addition to attracting blowflies and carrion beetles with its yeasty, bruise- purple flowers, it can reproduce clonally, creating lush, sprawling stands of trees. Around here, the groves are relatively small; in the richest, dampest bottomland, hundreds of genetically identical trees crowd the muted light of the understory. Its leaves are long and large and dark-green, sloping elegantly off the tree towards a sharply pointed end.
This particular feature, Sewanee professor David Haskell explains, runs in the family: the leaves of paw paw’s custard- apple cousins farther south also end in a “drip tip” that encourages water to flow off the leaf, preventing fungal infection. Its leaf shape, unique in our region, is only one reason Haskell calls the paw paw a “trickster plant, one that doesn’t quite obey all the rules the other trees obey.” The paw paw can even use its cloning abilities to creep around the forest floor, expanding into friendlier spots and leaving less nourishing ones behind.
Although the fruit has a delicious taste, Haskell says it “makes [him] feel weird” due to the combination of chemicals in the seeds and skin. Indeed, several books describe the seeds’ “stupefying effects” on animals. (If this sounds intriguing, be warned: Haskell and others are very clear that this is not a good kind of weird.)
Luckily, the seeds aren’t hard to avoid: they are large and dark, and stand out when embedded in the fruit’s flesh, which ranges in color from pale yellow to rich, mango- like orange. Haskell also notes that the paw paw tree is the only host plant for the zebra swallowtail butterfly.
“They fly mostly in the spring, this beautiful big butterfly with black and white wings, really gorgeous. You’ll see them down in Shakerag patrolling, looking for pawpaw.”
This tree has the kind of personality that attracts more than butterflies. As I prepared to write this article, I was instructed by at least three different people to keep the location of a local paw paw patch private. Every time, the request was made in good humor and fun, but each points to the strength of the connection fruit can foster between plants and people.
The paw paw’s relationship with us has a long history: the Shawnee and Cherokee people who lived here deserve our gratitude for the plump and flavorful paw paws we have now, since their cultivation of the tree most likely influenced the genetic profile of those that grow today. For some, the bond between human and tree was a fiercer one: people who fled enslavement in the antebellum South often depended on paw paws and other wild foods to fuel the dangerous journey to freedom.
When I called my mom this weekend, she recited song lyrics from her childhood in Arkansas: “pickin’ up paw paws, put ’em in your pocket…” The unique beauty of the paw paw, at once familiar and foreign, continues to captivate. In its distinctly tropical way, it has sweetened thousands of Appalachian falls, and it is our great luck to again welcome autumn with the paw paw in our midst.
If you are sufficiently inspired to take to the paths of Shakerag, like the zebra swallowtail, and cruise for a snack, Haskell and Thompson offered plenty of advice.
Haskell recommends looking for the distinctive leaf shape and arched tree stems rather than trying to spot the fruit, which is often difficult to see. Other sources instruct potential paw paw gatherers to check for long, rust-colored leaf buds at the ends of the branches. This should help confirm that the tree has been correctly identified. Thompson also stresses “being mindful about not taking it from someone else that needs it, or damaging the area.”
Finally, a good attitude is important: some local patches have been known to be barren for years or even decades. Regardless of whether the search is fruitful, the most important thing is to relish the sights and sounds of the natural world.
“You go with the intention of finding paw paws,” as Haskell says, “but maybe instead, you find an eastern box turtle or some cool lizard or some self knowledge about how it feels good to walk in the woods. And that is your paw paw fruit. The fruit of your wanderings is almost never what you intend to go out and look for.”
Bringing some friends along is part of the fun, too.
Thompson emphasizes that “sharing it with other people is so important… having people try new things, and telling them the history, that’s part of the fun of food.” So, if you have the time, take a study break in the woods! Hopefully, you’ll find beauty, a sense of community, and maybe even some paw paws.
For more information, Caroline Thompson recommends @blackforager on Instagram! There are also lots of relevant books in the library!