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In Search Of The Pawpaw Tree

By Staff | Oct 6, 2010

Clockwise in the picture are red clover, ginseng, yellow root, black cohosh, and acorn. The refection in the glasses is a pawpaw fruit.

At this time of year when the evenings are getting cooler, I think about the smell of fresh banana bread coming from the kitchen. You know that wonderful smell that fills the air as it bakes in an oven. If you are like me this warm treat with a cold glass of milk is something special.

It is also at this time of year I find myself in search of the fruit that grows in the forests here in the Ohio Valley that makes an unusual substitute for bananas in the bread, a pawpaw. If you have never had the opportunity to taste a pawpaw, it is something similar to the flavor of a banana. The first thing you will notice about a pawpaw is its aroma. When ripe they can be found in the woods by just following your nose. If they are anywhere nearby, you will likely smell those yellowish brown colored fruit before you see them. But you have to be quick because the wildlife also find them good to eat at this time of year.

With summer ending and fall beginning, it is a good time to venture into the local woods in search of the many different plants and trees that provided some form of natural creation that our forefathers collected and used in their lives. If you have a keen eye and a sense of adventure you can find Mother Nature’s answer to the modern pharmacy and grocery store.

With my collecting bag on my hip, I set off to see what can be found in the nearby woods. One of the first plants I come across is a Black Cohosh. This woodland plant grows naturally in small openings in the forest. It is harvested by the root hunter and sold for pharmacology uses. It is thought to have properties that process anti-inflammatory benefits and a treatment for menopause. It was first used by Native Americans who not only used it as a gynecological treatment but also for sore throats, kidney problems, and depression. At this time of year it can be identified by its large compound leaves that grow from the underground rhizome or root.

As I dig the root of the cohosh I hear the familiar sound of a squirrel barking in a tree. Small things fall from the high limbs above me to almost make me think he is throwing them down at me. As I pick one up I find it’s an acorn from the oak tree over head with its top cap still attached. This year the trees are filled with these seeds and soon will cover the forest floor where they become a welcome food supply for woodland animals, especially deer and squirrel. This abundant seed provides the wildlife an important food supply that is both high in protein and carbohydrates. These seeds of the oak tree enable the animals to build fat reserves and better survive the winter cold when food is hard to find on the frozen ground.

Just ahead near the fence line I see a plant commonly known as bloodroot. This plant was first collected by the early American native population and used as a dye and in herbal medicines. The root was believed by some to be a curative for skin disorders in the past. Bloodroot has been used in the treatment of skin cancers, but the practice is ill advised due to the strong disfiguring effect that compounds in the root produces. Bloodroot has been promoted by some as a treatment and cure for cancers, but it is considered as one of the fake cancer cures listed in the FDA group “187 false cures”.

As I walk a little further, I encounter a large fallen tree that has long ago begun to decay. On the shadowed side of the moss covered log I see one of the real prizes in the fall woods. Its name is goldenseal, but most know it locally as yellow root. The plant has a long history of being a treatment for sore throats and upset stomachs. It gets it name from the color of the root when broken open or cleaned. Before drying it is a bright yellow color. At one time these prized roots sold for a high price. But tame, cultivated plants are now commercially grown and harvested for sale to pharmaceutical companies. It is said that the plants grown in the wild still possess a higher quality of useful chemical compounds within the root.

In the thick forest I see a group of wild ferns growing near a small waterfall. One of the ferns is what the old timers call a “pointer”. In the center of the plant grows a white chute that bends over and points off in the direction of the nearby hillside. They say if you see one and look in the direction it points you will find the plant known as ginseng. At this time of the year its location is given away by its bright golden colored leaves and cluster of red berries at its heart. These plants’ roots have for centuries been given almost a mystical quality of healing powers. In the orient it has long been prized as by herbal remedy. American Ginseng is said to be different from plants grown in Asia. Asia Ginseng is said to build energy, where as American is said to have a more soothing effect. Both are prized as an aphrodisiac.

Along the way I find wild hazel nut bushes and hickory trees that are full of nuts. Along the edge of a nearby stream grows an abundance of a bright green patch of wild spearmint.In a few weeks or so when the colder weather has sent the sap of the trees into the roots I will begin digging sassafras root to be brewed into a tea. In a nearby meadow red clover that still blooms can be collected and dried to be sold. If you know where and how to look, our local woodlands can be abundant in those wonders of nature we have forgotten.

As I move around the hillside I begin to smell the unmistakable scent of what I am seeking. The pawpaw tree is not one that grows to a tall height.

And where you find one it is often growing with others alongside. As the fruit ripens and falls to the ground it is quickly eaten by a variety of wildlife. Squirrel open the soft flesh to find the large black seeds inside the fallen fruit. What they don’t eat immediately they carry off to bury for their winter food supplies. Those seeds that are forgotten in the ground are the beginning of a new stand of pawpaw trees next year.

For me, I have found the object of my adventure into the fall woods and will soon smell the warm bread in the oven. For you, I suggest that while the trees are still full of brightly colored leaves and the persimmons have not yet felt the touch of the first frost, take a quiet walk in the outdoors.

Close your eyes and smell the fall air and perhaps you too will find a pawpaw tree Thru the Lens.