Nov 15, 2008

Kentucky Bananas - They're Ripe for Picking

Kentucky Bananas are the largest edible native tree fruit in the U.S., sometimes weighing more than a pound each.  They were first documented in a 1541 report of the Spanish

de Soto Expedition of the Southeastern U.S., making mention that Native Americans cultivated them east of the Mississippi.  Kentucky Bananas were a favorite chilled dessert of George Washington, and planted by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello.  The Lewis and Clark Expedition depended and sometimes subsisted on them during their travels.  Modern naturalists frequently take to the woods in search of this delectable and nutritious fruit, seeking them out from early September until first frost.


Kentucky Banana, or Pawpaw trees (Asimina triloba), are understory trees found in fertile bottomland and upland habitat.  Large patches of these tropical looking trees can be found along our many streams, where they can grow up to 20-feet tall.  A member of the Annonaceae family, it is the only member not confined to the tropics.   Pawpaw trees probably derive their name from the Spanish papaya, whose fruit they resemble.  Pawpaws grow wild in hardwood forests of 26 states, from Florida to southern Canada and as far west as Nebraska.  Native Americans are most likely responsible for extending pawpaws far beyond their original growing range. 


It is hard to describe the taste of a pawpaw.  The flavor is truly tropical, resembling a blend of banana, pineapple and mango with a custard-like texture.  They are a good substitute for bananas freshly picked or in any recipe.  Pawpaws are loaded with vitamins, minerals and amino acids, and are most similar to banana in overall nutritional content.  Ripened pawpaws with skin and seeds removed can be pureed and frozen for later use.  They make excellent smoothies.


Individual Pawpaw trees do not generally produce large quantities of fruit.  The maroon, upside-down flowers produce a weak fetid or putrid odor, which attracts few pollinators, limiting fruit production.  The insects they do attract are flesh-eating insects, as carrion flies, blow flies, flesh flies and carrion beetles.  These insects are so vital for pollination that many a pawpaw grower places road kill in the pawpaw patch each April when they flower to attract these pollinators to their trees.  They have even been known to hang chicken necks from the trees to get the pollinators closer to the flowers.  Little wonder that pawpaws growing near roadways (with frequent road kill) often times produce more fruit than those in interior woodlands.


Pawpaw trees may be the perfect trees for residents of suburban communities, as deer will not eat them.  It’s thought that the stem emits an unpleasant smell when the tree is damaged, causing it to be unpalatable to deer, goats and rabbits.  The fruit though is relished by a wide variety of wildlife, including raccoons, opossum, mice, fox, squirrels, deer and humans.  In 2000, the Pawpaw tree was voted Better Homes and Gardens landscape tree of the year.

In recent years the Pawpaw tree has attracted much interest, especially with organic growers, as this native tree has few pests and is relatively disease free.  And though it has a delicious and nutritious fruit, it has not been cultivated on a large scale, as it does not store well.  Shelf life of tree-ripened fruit stored at room temperature is only a few of days.  With refrigeration, the fruit can be stored for about 3 weeks and can then be allowed to finish ripening at room temperature.  The fruit can frequently be found at local farmer’s markets where they can sell for up to $1.00 each.


Nothing though beats the taste of a ripe pawpaw freshly picked off the tree, and they are just now beginning to ripen.  The ripe fruits are easily picked (if you can reach them) by a gentle tug.  Shaking the tree will cause multiple clusters to fall off, but you may want to take cover or wear a helmet.  Nothing like having several one-pound Kentucky Bananas knock you in the noggin’.


Contact Gayle at her website for nest boxes at or yourtown




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