It’s the time of year to celebrate the Pawpaw! The what?! Pawpaws are Ohio’s state fruit, and North America’s largest native edible fruit! It’s little known fruit that is elusive, but prevalent. It has a tropical flavor, but is creamy.
Pawpaws are a hidden gem that grow in Ohio’s forests and meadows. This unassuming fruit, native to the region, carries with it a unique history, a distinctive flavor, and a growing reputation as a symbol of Ohio’s natural bounty.
The pawpaw is a small-medium (3-6 inches), green fruit that looks like a kidney-shaped mango, has a hint of banana/mango taste, and is creamy like an avocado.
If this piques your interest, be forewarned – it can be tough to get your hands on a pawpaw because they are highly perishable. Once picked from the tree, they typically only good for 3-7 days and bruise easily. As a result, they are not generally found in a grocery store.
History of Pawpaws
Historically, pawpaws were cherished by Native American tribes like the Shawnee and the Cherokee, who relished its sweet, custard-like flesh. Often referred to as the “poor man’s banana,” pawpaws were nourishing and plentiful, even if just for a short season.
Pawpaws continue to be connected to Ohio’s heritage through traditional recipes, stories, and celebrations.
Not interested in eating the fruit? Pawpaws are the only host plant for the zebra swallowtail butterfly, so they are integral to the ecosystem.
Where to find Pawpaws
You may literally find pawpaw trees in your backyard. We lived in our house for almost 5 years before we discovered a sprawling pawpaw grove on our property. Once you know what the trees look like, you’ll see them all over the place!
Unless you see the flower buds in early spring, or fruit in early fall, it’s easy to overlook these trees, even with their slender trunks and large tropical-like leaves. They spread in colonies via root suckers, so when you find one pawpaw tree, you’ll typically find many more of all heights!
Pawpaw trees are found in 26 states throughout Eastern, Southern and Midwest regions of the United States and the southern tip of Ontario, Canada.
As with foraging for other wild edibles, make sure you have permission to search for and pick pawpaws, whether it’s private property or public lands, such as metro parks or state parks.
Pawpaw foraging is allowed in any of Ohio’s 24 state forests, but varies for local and county park systems. Foraging is NOT permitted in the Columbus and Franklin County Metro Park system.
Identifying and picking pawpaws
In Spring, you’ll find dark purple flower buds. These buds are not sweet smelling, and are pollinated by various flies and beetles – not bees.
By mid/late summer, you’ll notice small, hard pale green fruit, often in clusters of 2-3. Through late August and late September, the fruit will grow and ripen. When they start to soften like a peach, and show a tiny bit of brown/black spotting, they are typically ready to be picked.
To check if pawpaws are ready to be picked or to get fruit high up in trees, you can gentle shake the trunk of the tree. If the fruit is ripe, the gentle swaying will cause the fruit to drop. You will also notice a sweet tropical scent when near trees with ripe pawpaws.
Resist the temptation to pick pawpaws early, as the flesh will be hard and tasteless. If you pick a pawpaw and realize it’s not quite ripe, you can leave it on the countertop to ripen a little more. Once ripe, eat then, or store in the refrigerator for 2-3 days.
How to eat pawpaws
Pawpaws have thin skin, but medium-large inedible seeds. They are highly perishable, so it’s best to eat or process pawpaws right away. Slice ripe pawpaws lengthwise and use a spoon scoop out the yellow flesh to enjoy, separating the seeds as you encounter them. The seeds are bitter tasting, and can cause stomach upset, so they are inedible.
Besides eating the yellow flesh directly from the fruit, you can also free the flesh for future use in recipes! Pawpaws can be used like bananas in recipes for smoothies, breads and baked goods, and ice cream, in addition to other creative uses such as beer.
We picked and froze the flesh from a couple of dozen pawpaws, and used it in homemade ice cream. It was really good, and we plan to make it every year!
Pawpaw festivals and celebrations
Ohio Pawpaw Festival
Head to Lake Snowden in Albany, Ohio from September 15-17, 2023 to celebrate pawpaws at the Ohio Pawpaw Festival!
Learn about the history of the pawpaw, and enjoy food and beverages featuring the pawpaw.
There is a full line-up of presentations and activities that cover pawpaw growing, cooking, genetics, medical use and other topics related to sustainability. Special events at the festival include competitions for the best and biggest pawpaw, a pawpaw cook-off, a best pawpaw-related work of art and the ever-popular pawpaw-eating contest.
Admission: Weekend pass is $60; Friday only pass is $20; Saturday only pass is $30; Sunday only pass is $20. Kids aged 12 and under are free. $10 off discount offered to active duty/retired military, seniors (60+) and Albany residents with proof of residency.
Lake Snowden, 5900 US-50, Albany, OH 45710. Read more about parking and shuttle options from Athens, Ohio.
Fri., 4 p.m. – midnight
Sat., 10 a.m. – midnight
Sun., 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Pawpaw Day at the Farm Science Review
On Tuesday, September 19, 2023 the Gwynne Conservation area is teaming up with the North American Pawpaw Growers Association to bring you a fun-filled day packed with pawpaw talks, walks, demos, and tastings! Events run throughout the day, 10:30am-3:00pm, and will be located at the Gwynne Conservation Area at Farm Science Review.
The Gwynne is a 67-acre conservation area where conservation demos, talks, displays, and tours are held during Farm Science Review, September 19-21, in London, Ohio. Featuring a pond, wetland, tallgrass prairie, stream, pawpaw orchard, and forage plots, the Gwynne offers a little something for everyone.
Though September 19th is dedicated to Pawpaws, talks on a variety of natural resource topics will be held throughout each of the three days of Farm Science Review. And new to the Gwynne this year, the “Ask a Master Gardener” table will be on site to answer all of your horticultural questions!
Pawpaw Hikes at Ohio State Parks
Select state parks host pawpaw hikes and other foraging hikes in the Fall. Check out upcoming events on the ODNR website.
National Pawpaw Day
The third Thursday of September.
Read more about Pawpaw trees on the ODNR website.