Unless you live in Hawaii, it's unlikely you'll ever find a local banana, or a local mango, or any other tropical fruit grown within 200 miles of where you live. But if you live in Indiana or pretty much anywhere else in the mainland U.S. right about now, you'd be able to sample a "Hoosier banana," aka the "poor man's banana," aka the "prairie banana," aka the pawpaw.
The largest edible fruit native to North America, the pawpaw will grow pretty much anywhere, although it does best in the Northeast and the Midwest, says Ken Asmus, owner of Oikos Tree Crops, a Kalamazoo, Michigan–based nursery that sells pawpaw tree seedlings. Their fruit ripens around the end of August and lasts until mid-October, but Asmus says the fruit on his trees in Michigan are just starting to ripen, owing to a cool spring.
And the taste? They live up to their nicknames. "Pawpaws have a really funny flavor and really funny texture, like a smooth banana, but also kind of mushy," he says. "Almost like a strawberry-banana flavor." Chefs and home cooks he knows use them to make cookies—"they add a sweetness and moisture to cookies," he says—breads, and even ice cream. And Asmus has tried canning them to take to various farm shows so he can have samples to give to potential pawpaw owners. "I have other jellies that I make sitting next to a milky pile of something that looks really horrible, but everyone who tastes it says it's really good!" he says. Just don’t look for them at the grocery store; you're more likely to find a pawpaw at your local farmer's market—if you aren't already growing them in your backyard.
Some nutritionists and foodies think pawpaws could be the next superfood. They have 20 to 70 times as much iron, 10 times as much calcium, and 4 to 20 times as much magnesium as bananas, apples, and oranges, Asmus has found. And research from Ohio State has found that they have antioxidant levels that rival cranberries and cherries. An added health bonus: Being a native tree, pawpaws are resistant to most pests and diseases, making them very easy to grow organically, without the insecticides or fungicides used in most fruit orchards.
"Plus, they just look really cool," Asmus says. They look like huge bananas and can weigh a pound or more, hanging in trees that live in shady areas alongside riverbanks and streams. Not only are they unique in appearance, they serve an important purpose. The Zebra swallowtail butterfly lay their eggs exclusively in the pawpaw tree, and the tree serves as the sole food source for their larvae.
If you're interested in learning more about pawpaw trees, here are a few online resources:
Photo courtesy of Dr. Kirk Pomper and the Kentucky State University Organic Agriculture Working Group.