The black spots on the pawpaw tell me they're ready to eat! Jamie Kinsley Photo.
Foraging for pawpaws: checking it off my bucket list
On Sept. 27, I turn 30 years old. In two weeks, my grandmother, Wanda Tyson, turns 80. We recently discussed her life, focusing on her proudest moments. Like any amazing grandmother, she said she’s most proud of the family she raised.
“Nothing,” she told me, was left on her bucket list.
She traveled, raised three children, and lived a happy life.
The reflection on her life made me think about items on my own bucket list. Ever since I found out about a native fruit that grows in York County woodlands, I’ve wanted to hunt and consume wild pawpaws.
Foraging for wild pawpaws
Walking along a steep path on a hillside in southern York County, I notice a grove of pawpaw trees. I’ve seen them there for years, but always missed out on the exact time the fruit ripened. Not this year! Looking up into the tree, about seven feet, I spot an oblong green pod about the size of a kiwi. I knew they were ripe because of the black spots.
Plucking wild fruit from a tree is so much more gratifying than eating fruit purchased from the store.
Plus, pawpaws aren’t even available at grocery stores. After splitting the pawpaw in half, I sink my teeth into a fruit that few people ever taste. A flavor combination of mango and banana erupt on my taste buds. It’s rare, and that makes it special. See below for suggestions about how to safely and legally forage.
To find, harvest, and eat the pawpaw is to connect with something ancient. It felt primal: hiking in the woods and identifying a source of nutrients.
Elizabeth Davidson, founder of Forage Culture, believes finding food in nature “is all about getting people to be more curious about where things come from.”
While many may not have the time, desire, or resources to hunt and gather their dinner, Davidson says “everyone can benefit from learning how to ask questions about where their food is coming from.”
“There’s all this talk about ‘nutrient dense foods’ and ‘superfoods,’ but it’s all just propaganda to make money,” Davidson tells me in an interview. “You want to know what makes a food nutrient dense? Letting it fight against the elements.”
The defense mechanisms plants build against bacteria, viruses, and other threats produce antioxidants, flavonoids, and vitamins that nourish our bodies. “That means the less we help our food sources,” Davidson says, “the more the plants will develop their own resistance, and therefore, the better it is for us to consume.”
Pawpaws, for example, are the only fruit with all the essential amino acids.
A popular new world fruit
Ken Dwigans with the North American Pawpaw Growers Association told me that pawpaws are a relatively new orchard crop. Other countries such as South Korea, Japan, and Russia have caught onto the trend, planting tremendous fields over the last 20 years. However, pawpaws have a old history in the new world.
Native Americans ate pawpaws, also using the fiber from the tree’s bark for nets.
Thomas Jefferson cultivated pawpaws in Monticello, even sending saplings to Europe which were appraised as an exceptional biological discovery in America.
Upon their return from surveying America, Lewis and Clark depended on pawpaws for survival. Since the fruit contains Vitamin C, healthy fats, antioxidants, it’s understandable how their expedition continued for three days subsisting on only pawpaws.
It’s even rumored that chilled pawpaws were George Washington’s favorite dessert, available from trees he planted at his Mount Vernon estate.
For the majority of human existence, we were hunter-gathers – A.K.A foragers – and you can be one, too.
The Horn Farm Center for Agricultural Education offers foraging classes. “By engaging in this age-old practice,” its website reads, “we can provide ourselves with healthy and FREE food and medicine, become more self-reliant, and connect on a much deeper level to the landscape in which we live.”
Its next class, Foraging for Wild Teas & Drinks, focuses on good-tasting, medicinal teas that pinpoint specific ailments and relaxation.
Davidson’s favorite things to forage are spices, berries, and ingredients for tea. She says, “It’s much easier to integrate these simple items into what you already cook rather than learning how to cook entirely new vegetables, fruits and mushrooms.”
Since finding a place to forage can be challenging, Forage Culture also has classes coming up in October in both York County and the Baltimore area.
Where you can find pawpaws
Pawpaws used to be far more common, but many people today don’t even know what it the fruit tastes like. Once coined “the poor man’s banana,” they’re quite rare.
Judy Bono, owner of The Gardener of the Owl Valley in Wrightsville, has been celebrating the pawpaw for 16 years. This upcoming weekend, Sept. 26 & 27, she’s hosting a pawpaw sale at her shop.
If you go, try to get there early. Last weekend, Bono described the pawpaw sale as a “mob scene” with many people skirmishing for their chance to taste this delicious fruit. You can also purchase recipe books on how to make pawpaw salsa, creme brûlée, ice cream, muffin and cookies. (Foraged Eatery in Baltimore has been known to offer pawpaw bread.)
You can also purchase cultivated pawpaw trees to start your own grove at the event this weekend.
Last year, I purchased three pawpaw trees from Gino’s Nursery at the 2019 Pawpaw Festival of York County hosted by the Horn Farm Center. I even got my first flower this spring!
You can also find pawpaws within York and Lancaster County parks. However, York County Parks Rules and Regulations, § 75-8 (Plant Life) writes, “No Person shall: A. Cut, remove or destroy any tree, sapling, seedling, bush or shrub, whether alive or dead.” The section also states that it’s not okay to “break or remove any branch, foliage, tree or shrub, or pick, gather, uproot, remove or destroy any flower, plant or grass.”
In sum, foraging is prohibited in our county parks, but pawpaws growing in our state parks are fair game.
PA State Forest Rules and Regulations, § 21.115 (Natural resources) writes, “Gathering edible wild plants or plant parts for an individual’s personal or family consumption, unless the plant is listed in Chapter 45 (relating to conservation)” is permitted.
Be careful though. Consuming too many pawpaws could cause you to get sick. John Potts and George Shannon of the Lewis and Clark expedition became ill, suffering from inflamed and swollen eyes (probably an allergic reaction). Pawpaws are listed as poisonous, but that relates to only parts of the bark and eating unripe fruit.
When I went foraging, I ate four pawpaws and felt fine. However, if you overindulge you may get sick.
Follow these foraging guidelines
Before you consume something you find in the woods, make sure it’s unquestionably edible.
“Foraging is less scary than people think, but only if they are educated,” Davidson cautions. “It’s not safe to just go and try something after reading one post on the internet. That’s how you end up in the hospital.”
Davidson reminds foragers to live by the “SELling” acronym: Safety, Etiquette, and Laws.
- Safety – Consider the chemicals sprayed, what was on the land before it was foragable, proximity to the road, and how confident you are in your identification of the plant.
- Etiquette – Do you have permission? Don’t take too much, and be careful of your harvesting techniques.
- Laws – Is what you’re doing legal?
A check off my bucket list
In 50 years, I’ll be my Mama’s age. That’s the year 2070.
I know it seems insignificant, but checking off “harvest and eat wild pawpaws,” makes me feel good about turning the big 3-0 this weekend.
Read more about harvesting and storing pawpaws from Peterson Pawpaws out of Harpers Ferry, WV.
Books on foraging:
- Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) by Steve Brill and Evelyn Dean.
- The Scout’s Guide to Wild Edibles: Learn How To Forage, Prepare & Eat 40 Wild Foods by Mike Krebill.