Last Saturday morning, I was on my way to the 7th Annual PawPaw Festival at Long Creek Homestead to answer those questions. It was almost ridiculous how excited I was to try my first pawpaw. I had never even heard of pawpaws before last September when I saw an advertisement for the 6th Annual PawPaw Festival. I was intrigued by a native fruit rumored to taste like mango, banana, and vanilla custard, then I was heartbroken to find that tickets were sold out weeks in advance. I vowed that 2022 would be my year.
In the meantime, I asked family and friends “do you know what a pawpaw is?”
A few people sang me the old folk song:
“Pickin’ up pawpaws, puttin’ ’em in your pocket
Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch”
But not one person I asked had ever seen or eaten one. I searched grocery stores and farmer’s markets with no luck. If this is a native fruit, why is it so elusive?
Upon my arrival at the beautiful Long Creek Homestead, I didn’t waste any time and headed straight to the tasting table. There were eight varieties of pawpaw to taste, arranged from mildest to most intense. I tried them all, and the rumors were true. Some varieties tasted of citrus, pineapple, and mango while others leaned toward thick banana custard. All were unquestionably tropical with a sweet, creamy flesh. I chose the citrusy Allegheny and rich Susquehanna varieties as my favorites and joined the long line to buy my three pound limit of fruit to take home.
Having secured my prize, I wandered the lovely surroundings, enjoyed some pawpaw ice cream, and learned as much as I could about the pawpaw.
About those lovely surroundings—Long Creek Haven is a 25-acre permaculture homestead and the home of Michael Judd and his family. Judd is an edible landscape designer and the author of the book “For the Love of Paw Paws: A Mini Manual for Growing and Caring for Paw Paws–From Seed to Table”. The founder of Ecologia, Edible & Ecological Designs, Judd hosts educational workshops, tours, and festivals – including this annual Pawpaw Festival.
Long Creek’s gardens and woodland areas are full of edible plants and trees. I joined a permaculture tour led by Eric Joseph Lewis, a plant educator at Plant Path Nursery. We learned about edible fruit trees like elderberry, persimmon, chestnut and, of course, we ended in the pawpaw patch.
So what is a pawpaw?
The pawpaw fruit looks a lot like a green mango on the outside, but the inside has a soft yellow pulp with a custard-like texture and tropical flavor. Multiple large brown seeds line the center of the fruit. Be aware that only the pawpaw pulp is edible. The pawpaw seeds, skin, leaves, and bark contain a neurotoxin.
Pawpaws are commonly eaten fresh; just cut them open, remove the seeds, and scoop out the soft pulp. I’ve been spooning mine over ice cream, stirring it into plain yogurt, or just eating it straight from a bowl. It can also be made into preserves or baked into quick breads. The best way to store the fruit longterm is by removing and freezing the pulp. I also just happened to have a batch of home-brewed kombucha ready for bottling and a ripe pawpaw, so it was the perfect opportunity to bottle some pawpaw-ginger kombucha. I love when things come together like that!
Pawpaws are the largest edible fruit indigenous to the United States. The pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba) is native to the Eastern United States from New York all the way down to northern Florida and it extends into the Midwest to parts of Nebraska and Texas. The Asimina genus is a member of the flowering plant family Annonaceae, which includes tropical fruits like custard apple, cherimoya, and soursop. Asimina is the only genus of this family to grow in a temperate climate. The trees grow wild here in Maryland, D.C., and Virginia, especially in wooded areas near streams and ponds. Pawpaws grow along the entire length of the C&O Canal National Historical Park and the park allows visitors to take home 1/2 gallon of pawpaws per person per day.
If they are so prolific, where have pawpaws been all my life?
Pawpaws are only in season for a short time during September/October. The pawpaw fruits are easily bruised and highly perishable. They fall from the tree ripe and will only last for a few days at room temperature and maybe a week in the refrigerator. This is why I could never find them at a store or market. They don’t fit with the typical model of large scale production, shipping, and grocery store display. Perhaps this will change with research into pawpaw cultivation underway in Kentucky.
If you still haven’t tried a pawpaw, you probably will soon because pawpaws are making a comeback. With the locavore food movement and the growing interest in foraging for native edible plants, pawpaws are all over the internet and in the news. There are Facebook groups where pawpaw fanatics share their obsession. Pawpaw festivals are popping up all around the country.
This Saturday morning, as I sit here writing this blog post while sipping on my pawpaw kombucha, I’m feeling very pleased with myself that I finally know what everyone is talking about.