Pawpaws ripen to the point of fermentation within days of being picked. (Photo: Jenni Veal)

Last Friday, I was standing in a river with a friend who had volunteered to shake the trunks of some pawpaw trees so I could catch their ripe fruit. The desire to get my hands on this exotic-tasting native fruit drove me to this wild foraging behavior.

The pawpaw fruits we gathered weighed a few ounces each, and a few hit me on the head as they fell off the tree. The others plopped into the shallow water and we scrambled to gather them from the river bottom—two, five, eight soft green fruits the size of small potatoes. We piled them on the riverbank to take home to friends and family.

Pawpaw trees grow in thickets along waterways in the eastern, southern and midwestern United States. (Photo: Jenni Veal)

The pawpaw is a wild fragrant fruit, and the yellow-orange pulp tastes like a cross between a banana and mango. After a day or two of ripening, the fruit gains some caramel undertones.

"The flavor of pawpaws is forceful and distinct," writes culinary historian Mark Sohn in his book "Appalachian Home Cooking." 

The easiest way to taste the pawpaw fruit is to suck on one of its large black seeds.

Pawpaw trees grow in thickets along waterways in the eastern, southern and midwestern United States. One of the best ways to spot the ripe fruit in the fall is from a canoe.

Why pawpaws have avoided cultivation is somewhat of a mystery. It is generally assumed that they have been overlooked because the fruit ripens to the point of fermentation within days of being picked.

This fermentation works to the benefit of folks such as Pete Halupka and Lindsay Whiteaker, owners of Harvest Roots Ferments in Mentone, Alabama.

The duo forages for wild fruits, vegetables and herbs to use in making kombucha, a fermented health tea. Pawpaw is one of their most coveted kombucha drinks.

"For me, what’s interesting about the pawpaw is that it’s a native fruit, and yet it is so tropical," Halupka said. "It quells any desire I have for using some fruit from a faraway land. We have not seen anyone use pawpaws in kombucha, and we are excited about the possibilities." 

The pawpaw is a wild fragrant fruit, and the yellow-orange pulp tastes like a cross between a banana and mango. (Photo: Jenni Veal)

Harvest Roots Ferments sells their kombucha at the Main Street Farmers Market on East Main Street in Chattanooga. Watch Harvest Roots Ferments on Instagram for their pawpaw kombucha release.

Pawpaw fruit is lauded for its health benefits. The fruit is high in vitamin C, magnesium, iron, copper and manganese, and is a good source of potassium and several essential amino acids.

The leaves of the pawpaw tree are also the sole food source for the caterpillar stage of Tennessee’s state butterfly, the zebra swallowtail.

"I am interested in the pawpaw because they are a food for butterflies," said Christine Bock Hunt, a member of the horticultural staff at the Tennessee Aquarium who works on the butterfly garden. "People who are growing butterfly gardens in their yard often add pawpaw to their landscape for the zebra swallowtail butterfly."

Look for pawpaw fruit along waterways in Southeast Tennessee and at farmers markets throughout the region in September and October. Crabtree Farms in Chattanooga sells the fruit seasonally as well. Another source is Integration Acres in Ohio.

Jenni Veal enjoys exploring and adventuring with her family in the great outdoors. Visit her travel website www.YourOutdoorFamily.com to learn more about outdoor family travel adventures in the United States. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.