The List: What to know about pawpaw picking (and eating) in Ohio

It's just about time to harvest Ohio's native fruit, so please, for the love of all things sacred, don't pick pawpaws too early

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Several Ohio pawpaws harvested in late September 2020.

Other than that Surf Ohio T-shirt and some unbearably hot, humid weeks in August, there's very little about this state that screams "tropical." But somehow, Ohio ended up with the pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba), which produces the largest edible fruit in North America — green and pear-shaped, with white-yellow, custard-like flesh that tastes like banana mixed with mango. It's totally tropical, and as of 2009, it's the native fruit of Ohio.

Previous generations of Ohioans knew all about pawpaws, harvesting the fruit from stands of trees every fall. Fewer people know about it these days, though thanks to events like the Ohio Pawpaw Festival in Albany, which takes place Sept. 17-19, more Ohioans get hip to this tasty fruit each year. 

I didn't go actively looking for pawpaw fruit until 2020, so I'm admittedly still a newbie. But here's what I've learned so far.

Kathy Dice checks on a pawpaw cluster hanging from a tree on a farm near Wapello, Iowa.

Pawpaw trees are everywhere

Once you learn to ID a pawpaw tree, you'll start seeing them all over the place: along biking paths, in Metro Parks, ravines, maybe even in your backyard. If you're in a forested area with water nearby, you'll often find pawpaws. The trees look just as tropical as the fruit, with large, oblong leaves and spindly trunks.

They don't always fruit

Just because you found a pawpaw tree doesn't mean it'll produce fruit. It needs to be big and mature enough, and it needs other pawpaw trees nearby. Even then, the trees rely on flies to pollinate their flowers, which doesn't always happen. (Some people hang rotten meat on the branches of their pawpaw trees to attract flies and encourage pollination.)

DON'T PICK THE FRUIT TOO EARLY

You know what's super annoying? When you find a pawpaw tree with healthy-looking fruit, and you casually track the growth of that fruit all summer, and then some impatient person picks it in August, when it's still hard as a rock and inedible. When you harvest too early, you ruin it for everyone (including woodland creatures). 

In Central Ohio, pawpaws generally don't ripen until mid- to late-September, though that changes the further south you go. It's a tricky timetable. Pawpaws don't counter-ripen well once they're picked, and there's a short window when they're fully ripe on the tree. Plus, once you pick them, they're only good for a few days. They also bruise easily. (You can see now why grocery stores don't carry pawpaws.)

Generally, come September, I look to see if the fruit on the tree is getting black markings, and if I can reach the pawpaws, I use my hand to see how soft they are. At peak harvest time, if you gently shake the tree, the ripe fruit should fall. Or, look on the ground to find freshly dropped fruit (a little bruising is no big deal). 

If you find a good pawpaw spot, keep it to yourself

It's not selfish. It's smart.

Check to make sure it's OK to pick the fruit first

Some places, like the Metro Parks, prohibit foraging. State forests are generally a safer bet. It's best to call ahead.

If you can't find 'em, buy 'em

If you're unable to find any fruit-bearing trees in all your searching, or other harvesters beat you to it, you can always head to the aforementioned Pawpaw Festival. Local farmers markets also sometimes offer pawpaws; recently, Beechwold Farm Market has advertised some good-looking fruit for sale. Integration Acres in Albany has been in the pawpaw business since 1996 and sells all kinds of products, including fresh pawpaw, frozen pulp and more.

You can also grow your own pawpaw trees. Just remember to buy more than one, and preferably trees from different patches (way down yonder) to give a better chance of fruiting. And then be patient. It takes several years to go from seedling to a fruit-yielding tree.

Pawpaw fruit with seeds

Eat them fresh

The best way to eat a pawpaw? Just slice it open, take out those big, brown seeds and scoop the custard-y goodness into your mouth. (Also, if you were a Disney kid, Baloo led us all astray: American pawpaws are not prickly, nor are they pears.)

Or make some pudding

A fresh, perfectly ripe pawpaw is tough to beat, but if you want to use the fruit as an ingredient in some other dish, there are lots of recipes out there. Last year I made pawpaw pudding, and it was delicious — fruit-forward, but also full of fall flavors like nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger.

Want more ideas? Check out Integration Acres' website for pawpaw ice cream and creme brulee recipes

Pawpaw pudding