They say if you’re mama don’t know, you should go ask your papa. But, it’s anyone’s guess why Americans aren’t growing and eating the delicious fruit known as pawpaw. The small-sized tree produces the largest edible fruit native to North America.
A taste of the tropics
Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) brings a rare taste of the jungle to our temperate forests. The only local member of a mainly tropical genus, it grows wild in the eastern United States and Canada. The deciduous tree produces large, greenish-brown fruits that ripen in September and October.
Such unusual fruits make for an odd sight on a North American tree. Growing in clusters like coconuts, they look a lot like mangos (although some people compare them to potatoes.) Fans agree, however, that the fruit’s sweet, tangy flavor is a rich tropical blend of mango with a note of banana, even pineapple. And while they make great ice cream, smoothies and desserts, pawpaws are best enjoyed raw when their creamy, custard-like flesh can be fully appreciated.
Although they tend to form large groups, pawpaw trees are easy to overlook. That’s because their dull green leaves, modest height and multi-branching structure help them blend in with other understory shrubs in the forest. There’s one distinguishing feature, though, for those on the look-out: their foliage. Pawpaw leaves are wider at the tip than the bottom and hang 8 to 12 inches long, giving the plant a distinctive droopy look.
So why don’t most Americans know about them? There is evidence pawpaws have been growing in North America for millennia. In fact, research shows Native Americans were growing them as far back as the 1500s and both Washington and Jefferson had pawpaw trees in their gardens. Moreover, in April 2014 Michelle Obama planted one in the White House Kitchen Garden.
But you won’t find pawpaws at your local grocery and unless your timing is right, you won’t find them at the farmer’s market either.
Why pawpaws are hard to find
The good news is that deer avoid pawpaw like the plague, which has resulted in ever expanding pawpaw populations. But, here’s the rub. Fruit production suffers from poor pollination. Although their flowers contain both male and female reproductive parts, pawpaws are self-infertile, meaning they must be fertilized with pollen from a different variety of pawpaw to produce fruit.
And bees aren’t their primary pollinators, flies and beetles are. To attract them, pawpaw produces a stinky, meat-colored flower in the spring, (just like the Denver Botanical Garden’s corpse flower named ‘Stinky’ ) It goes without saying that the color and smell of the flowers, coupled with the flies, can be a deal-breaker for many home gardeners.
Add to that the fact that cold, rainy weather can discourage fly activity (which can result in poor fruit set) and growers often have little choice but to hand pollinate their pawpaws. To attract the tree’s preferred pollinators, some go so far as to hang spoiled meat, even roadkill, in its branches.
It’s enough to give you paws.
Where to buy pawpaws
Ready to sample one? Well, unless you attend a pawpaw growers’ festival, they are hard to come by. And as I mentioned above, you won’t find pawpaws in most grocery stores. This is partly due to the fact that their large size and soft skins make harvesting the fruits labor-intensive. And their shelf-life is short, just 2 to 3 days. This makes them also impractical to ship.
But, having missed the 3rd annual pawpaw festival here in Maryland, I was anxious to try one. So I compiled a list of local farm markets and co-ops that seemed most likely to carry the fruit and started calling. Reactions ranged from “What?” to “Never heard of that,” or “Sorry, we don’t carry papayas.” It turns out I had missed the window for purchase. I had no choice but to go into the wild and search for my own.
Searching for pawpaws
According to the National Park Service, pawpaws are now one of the most common sapling species on the C&O Canal, GW Memorial Parkway and along the trails of Harpers Ferry (mostly due to deers’ lack of interest.) Indeed, this was immediately apparent once I hit the C&O towpath. Now that I knew what to look for, I could see long drifts of pawpaw peeking out from under the forest canopy. Strangely, I had never noticed them before.
Pawpaws line the banks of Maryland’s C&O canal
Searching for pawpaws can be tedious, but with a punster it’s worse. As we walked, keeping our eyes trained upward, my boyfriend kept up an endless refrain including such goodies as ‘Reminds me of the group mawmaws and pawpaws’ and ‘Did you ever see the photo of the dog with his leg in a sling? He says “I’m looking for the man who shot my paw.’ All in all, we walked for 4 miles.
I wish I could tell you that we finally found the fruits, however, though we passed literally hundreds of pawpaws, we didn’t run across a single one. Perhaps the raccoons had gotten them, or savvy hikers, or maybe this summer’s rainy weather had discouraged fruit set. We shook the smaller saplings to see if we could dislodge some we couldn’t see. And we scoured the beds of Japanese switchgrass for some that might have fallen. Sadly, we came up empty-handed.
I haven’t given up, though, and have a possible lead on some fruits in upper Maryland. I’ll keep you posted if I succeed in getting them. Meanwhile, I’ll be heading back to the canal in a month to see the pawpaw foliage, which turns a brilliant yellow in the fall.
* While there are numerous theories on line about how pawpaw got its name, I’m going with this one from the Arnold Arboretum at harvard.edu: the fruit was named by the members of Hernando de Soto’s expedition through the southeastern, United States, who upon noting the Native Americans growing and eating it, named it pawpaw for its resemblance to the tropical fruit papaya.