Thursday, October 4, 2012

My Quest for the Elusive Pawpaw....and other wild edibles

Dr. Larry Martin next to a black cherry tree.  Note the distinctive
 dark bark, resembling "burnt potato chips"
Today, I got schooled.  I like to think I know a thing or two about wild edibles and wilderness survival, but today was one of those days when it became abundantly clear how little I do know.  I had the privilege to take part in a wilderness survival program for homeschoolers at Woldumar Nature Center in Lansing, my new city, under the guidance of Dr. Larry Martin, author of the self-published book A Week in the Wilderness: a do-it-yourself guide (at the time of this post, there are only four copies of this book available on Amazon, but I talked to him about putting more copies on there, because I got the impression he has quite a few more in his possession or in the possession of the nature center).

The focus was Native American survival skills, which always hold a particular interest to me since such an approach tends to be slanted more to what works for the region I am in, which in the event of an actual survival situation would be the most valuable information to have.  Some stuff I already knew, like you can make turtle soup right in a turtle shell or that pine or any other evergreen needles can be used to make a tea that is high in vitamin C, something that isn't always easy to come by in the middle of a Michigan winter without that knowledge.  I learned many other things as well, such as you can use ash or red cedar to make bows (we'll learn more about that in next week's class), hawthorn thorns can be used for fishhooks, basswood tree bark makes good rope (also something we'll learn more about next week), prickly ash is "nature's Novacaine", almost all plants with square stems are in the mint family and therefore edible (and good for upset tummies), those little black fruits I've seen on the ground a lot are black cherries and can be eaten after the first frost (the frost removes a lot of the bitter taste), wild grapes are all edible although some are also too bitter until after the first frost, and moss contains iodine.
I've seen these berries many times in my life, but always assumed they are poisonous.  I may have even tasted one as a child to lead me to this conclusion.  It turns out they are not.  They are actually high bush cranberries (which is not a "true" cranberry).  While extremely bitter right now, after the first frost, they lose much of their bitterness and, when combined with sugar, make a fantastic jam or jelly according to Dr. Martin.

My favorite part of the class was when he told us to start looking for a "watermelon like fruit" among some trees that I didn't think I'd ever seen before.  Sadly, we didn't find the fruit (Dr. Martin said a young naturalist that hadn't learned not to take more than a couple must have been through.  Or the squirrels got them all.), but he identified the tree for us as a paw paw.  I was ecstatic!  I first heard about paw paws, sometimes also called Michigan banana, a couple years ago and have been wondering where to find them ever since.  They are supposed to grow in Michigan, but I'd never seen one before so I didn't know where to start looking.  They sound delicious though and you can't buy them in the store because they transport so poorly that they turn to mush before they would get there.  Supposedly, some farmers at farmers markets may have them, but I've never seen them their either.  Now, I can at least identify the plant and can possibly find some in the wild in the future.  Of course, being impatient as I am, I might also give into the temptation I've faced since I first heard about them and buy some trees of my own (I've had a pair of trees sitting in my Amazon shopping cart ever since I first heard about them, or try to start some from seed, of course that still means waiting 3 or 4 years until it bears fruit.  But at least then I'd know where to find the elusive pawpaw on a regular basis!
In addition to producing delicious (so I'm told) fruit, the large leaves of the pawpaw apparently lend themselves well to being used as wilderness toilet paper.
Disclaimer: The information provided here is for edutainment purposes only.  Please do not eat wild edibles without the supervision of someone who knows what they are doing or at the very least careful identification using a reputable field guide like a Peterson's field guide.  Several of the plants in this post could be mistaken for poisonous plants without careful identification.  If you go out and eat berries or whatnot solely on the information on this post, I am not responsible for your possibly fatal stupidity. 


  1. I have 4 pawpaw trees growing behind my house in the woods. If they have any Ill gladly send you some! They taste similar to bananas.

    1. I've always heard they don't travel well, which is why you can't find them in the store and have never been a commercially viable product, but thank you for your offer.