"Bayou Bill" Scifres
Dedicated to the conservation and enjoyment of Indiana's natural resources
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Stalking the Indiana Banana
Copyright © 2001 by Bill Scifres

On a beautiful, early-fall afternoon a few years back, I sat on a hillside overlooking an ancient oxbow in the flood plain of White River’s west fork near the “town” of Plummer--really only a railroad crossing.

With my back against a little white oak tree, I sat with legs sprawled comfortably, the little single-shot rifle across my lap. I was watching a hickory tree for squirrels. There were lots of the outer shells of hickory nuts on the ground beneath the tree, but few hard, inner nuts. That told me squirrels were carrying nuts to spots closer to their winter dens and burying them in the earth for winter food. 

Incidentally, fox and gray squirrels bury nuts and acorns one at each spot in the forest floor to be used later as food. Pineys (more correctly red squirrels) cache their winter food supplies in hollow limbs and other such places, including drain gutters of houses.

There was almost no wind stirring and the sun kept me warm and comfortable . . . almost to the point of drowsiness. And while there was no immediate squirrel action, my lethargic tendencies were interrupted occasionally by a strange odor that was quite familiar. But always it wafted away so quickly that my mind would not identify it.

After half an hour--maybe more--of trying to solve this riddle, the solution became more important than the chances of bagging another squirrel or two. This strange odor was tantalizingly familiar, but just as an off-the-cuff speaker gropes futilely for just the right word, my memory bank of odors failed. 

Spurred by the determination of the title character in  Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “The Explorer,” I stood up, and, with the light southern breeze in my face, waited for another sniff. When it came, I took a few steps into the wind, then waited again.

I don’t know how long I played this game with the elements, but as I moved into the wind this pleasant odor grew stronger. Finally, as I stood on the brink of the little hill and looked down onto the deep-shaded banks of the oxbow, I first noted a thick growth of saplings. Then the aroma of ripe paw-paws pounded me square in the beezer. I could but smile at the stalk by nose that I had made.

For many years I had stalked birds and animals by sight and sound--now I had used the sense of smell to find my quarry--a beautiful little grove of paw-paw “trees” which seldom get large enough to qualify as a tree. They are more like a shrub.

The rest is history. I filled a plastic bag with the sickly-sweet yellow/black-splotched fruit known to Southern Indiana folks as the Indiana Banana, but not without first consuming one or two on the spot, spitting out (like a submachine gun) the black, elongated, flat seeds in true country-boy fashion. It was a thing I had not done for many years.

My booty for the day--not counting a couple of squirrels--included enough pulp from the paw-paws I took home to make a gallon of wine (it turned out clear and potent), and a pint of frozen pulp for use the following New Year’s Day when daughter Patty and I would turn out a first-of-its-kind, genuine, paw-paw cream pie, decorated with hickory and black walnut kernels. Then, of course, the best ones were shared with numerous people who never had dreamed that Mother Nature produced such a wild delight.

Paw-paws, like bananas, need to be right next to over-the-hill to be at their gastronomic best. When the Pan-American Games were staged at Indianapolis a few years back, some member of the press corps from neighboring countries to the south were amazed at the way Hoosiers ate bananas. One reporter from one of the banana republics told me that in his country bananas skins were black before they were eaten. And so it is with paw-paws.

When the paw-paw still is clinging to branches of the saplings (the paw-paw tree rarely gets more than two inches in diameter head high above the ground), the pea-green color of the paw-paw skin, starts turning a pale yellow as the cool nights of late summer come. And before they fall of their own volition, splotches of black may be the dominant color. The black splotching advances rapidly after the fruit falls to the forest floor, and it is then that the paw-paw is at its mellow best. Paw-paws still are very tasty when the leathery skin turns completely black, but at this time the pulp, too, may be covered by a pithy coat of black or brown and the pulp may taste fermented.

The best test in determining the ripeness of a paw-paw is the squeeze test. If the outer surface gives freely when it is squeezed, the fruit is ripe, at its best.

To salvage the pulp, I simply pull away the outer skin with a dull knife and my thumb, then run the pulp through a colander (the pestle type is my choice) to remove the seeds. In this operation, be gentle with the pestle to avoid grinding the seeds into the pulp.

Paw-paw pulp freezes nicely in one or two-cup containers, but I do not keep it frozen as long as I keep persimmon pulp. To avoid freezer burn, I wrap containers tightly in newspaper after they are frozen.

Paw-paw trees tend to grow in groves, at low, damp points in woodlands dominated by big hardwood trees. The paw-paw is really an under story bush with the appearance of a tree. Just as paw-paw trees/bushes seldom get larger than your wrist in diameter, neither do they often grow to heights greater than 20 feet. However, on the day I sniffed out the paw-paw grove mentioned above, I found one tree that I estimated to be five inches in diameter and 35 to 40 feet tall.

This is why I believe that one of the characteristics of wild things--both flora and fauna--lies in the fact that they reserve the right to act uncharacteristically. Never say never about wild things.

It is easy to shake the fruit free of the limbs, but--for the obvious reason--don’t look up while you are shaking.

Although the gastronomic qualities of the paw-paw are their real value in the eyes of most members of the small army (make that platoon) of their admirers, the flower of this bush/tree offers its own aesthetic value. The paw-paw bloom--a little (half-inch in diameter) burgundy bell that hangs strait down from the twigs--is one of the most beautiful wild flowers you will find about the time morels are popping in the spring. Yet, few ever view it. It is such a pity.

Click on the image above for larger view of paw-paw bloom.

Click here to see a black and white photo of three Indiana Bananas.

All columns are copyrighted by Bill Scifres and may not be reproduced in any form without prior permission from the author.  For reproduction permission and media usage fees, contact: Bill Scifres, 6420 East 116th Street, Fishers, IN 46038, E-mail: billscifres@aol.com

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