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  • Writer's picturePam Owen

Pawpaws: Why aren’t they sold in grocery stores?

This post was meant to be a sidebar for the Wild Ideas column I recently wrote for Rappahannock News, but I got so engrossed in trying to find why pawpaw fruit only seems to exist in the wild that I just kept researching and writing. The sidebar was bigger than the main piece, really too big for a sidebar, and I’m still finding even more to read about this strange native plant, so I decided to move it to my blog.

Below is a little background on the pawpaw genus and why, to my sorrow, I can’t just run to the nearest grocery store to purchase the fruit. Please read the main piece, which focuses on my recent experience eating pawpaws for the first time since I was in elementary school.

A little background on the genus Asimina

Pawpaws are among the few genera in the custard-apple family (Annonaceae) that grow this far north of the tropics, ranging throughout much of the mid-latitudes — 26 states — of the Eastern United States. According to the Virginia Native Plant Society, in Virginia, “pawpaws are common in the Coastal Plain and Piedmont in forested bottomlands, well drained floodplain forests, swamp hummocks and rich woods.” This understory species tends to spread into small colonies or “pawpaw patches” through shoots (suckers) growing from a mature tree.

The Common Pawpaw (Asimina triloba), which I focus on here, is the largest and best-known of the 13 species of the genus Asimina native to North America. Of those, all but two prefer the tropics and, in North America, range only as far north as Florida or coastal Alabama. Their range does not overlap that of the Common Pawpaw, which extends the furthest north. A. triloba can grow to up to 60 feet but is usually closer to 15. Its leaves are large, up to a foot long and 5 inches wide. The rest of the species in the genus are shrubs.

Common Pawpaw tree
The huge leaves of the Common Pawpaw stand out in the understory at Sky Meadows State Park.

Leaves of Common Pawpaw
The leaves can grow to almost a foot long and add gold and burgundy colors to fall landscapes.

The fruit of the Common Pawpaw, which resembles a mango on the outside, is the tree's rock star (see my column for more on the fruit). But the blooms are pretty amazing, too: “The flowers, with their exotic look borrowed from tropical relatives, hardly seem to belong to the cool vernal world on which they open,” Donald Culross Peattie writes in his 1948 book A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America. “At first green, the petals soon turn brown, and then they become a dark winy color, with an odor to match, a remembrance of fermenting purple grapes.”

Pawpaw blooms
The pawpaw flowers, which bloom in early April, are as unusual as the fruit.

Pawpaws were first documented in North America in 1540 by a Portuguese explorer on an expedition to the New World led by Hernando De Soto. The explorer noticed Native Americans eating the fruit. People in many tribes were certainly aware of pawpaws, and some experimented with hybrids to get a variety of the tasty fruits.

Since DeSoto’s expedition, Peattie writes, “for two centuries the Pawpaw flourished unknown” except by wild animals and Native Americans, until Mark Catesby descried it in his “‘Natural History of North Carolina.”’ Peattie also adds that the inner bark of the tree was woven into fiber cloth by the “Louisiana Indians,” and pioneers used it to string fish. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are said to have been passionate about pawpaws, which they planted and cultivated on their respective properties.

The taste of the Common Pawpaw can vary, which is the main reason for developing diverse cultivars, which are mostly named after the farm or area in which they grew. In 1916, The American Genetic Association (AGA) held a contest to spur on the development of pawpaw cultivars. Some were successful, making their way to farms and arboretums. Several sources have mentioned that some of the offspring of the 1916 contest winner are still at Blandy Experimental Farm, in Boyce, in a woodlot that Blandy’s director of scientific engagement, Ariel Firebaugh, describes in a paper published by the Farm as its “equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle, a disorienting place awash with 100 years of ecological flotsam.”

In the same paper, Firebaugh goes on to tell the story of how these pawpaws ended up there: AGA offered cash prizes for the largest and best-tasting pawpaw fruits “in an effort to identify promising genetic lines.” Pawpaws were entered from all over the country, and the winner, Mrs. Frank Ketter, of Ohio, beat out 74 other entrants. Firebaugh quotes the judges as opining that “The flesh is medium yellow in color, mild but very rich in flavor, neither insipid nor cloying. The amount and quality of the flesh, together with the good shipping and ripening qualities of the fruit, make this an extremely desirable variety.”

So what happened to these star cultivars? “At the end of the competition,” Firebaugh writes, “several horticulturalists set about propagating and crossing pawpaw lines from Mrs. Ketter’s trees in orchards throughout the eastern United States. One pioneering pawpaw breeder, George Zimmerman, planted over 60 varieties at his orchard near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. When Zimmerman passed away, his widow donated a sizable portion of the collection to Blandy’s first director and plant geneticist Dr. Orland E. White. Among these were descendants of Ms. Ketter’s prize-winning trees. Somewhere in Blandy’s back woods may be pawpaw royalty!” (To learn more about the 1916 contest and what it did for pawpaw cultivation, read “Pawpaw variety development: A history and future prospects,” by nationally known pawpaw breeder Neal Peterson, in the journal HortTechnology.)

Despite all these efforts, support for cultivating pawpaws waned, and the whereabouts of the cultivars became harder to trace. Most of the pawpaw cultivation has since been done by amateurs who are passionate about the fruit rather than by agricultural scientists. The VEC publication “Selecting Plants for Virginia Landscapes: Edible Landscape Species — Trees” (SPES-316) lists nine cultivars of the Common Pappaw and includes some basic information on growing the species. Mr. Burkholder had gotten his pawpaw trees from another enthusiast, he said, which is common in pawpaw world.

The lack of commercialization of pawpaws is often attributed to two factors. First is the low and unpredictable production by the trees. As SPES-316, explains, they “must be pollinated by another unrelated plant (pollinizer) to produce fruit,”. “Or in the case of a cultivar (clone), one cultivar must be cultivated by another cultivar,” the publication goes on to note. Pawpaw trees generally have “relatively small” fruit yields because of pollination issues. “In fact, a grower in a commercial orchard has been known to hang roadkill in trees to attract insects for cross-pollination.”

Other problems pawpaws’ reproducing through suckering (one pawpaw tree growing out of another) instead of pollination. As Mary Lee Epps writes in an article for VNPS, “trees growing in the wild may produce a grove of clones that are not self-fertile.”

The other big impediment to selling pawpaw fruit is its appearance and durability, which are related. Food stores typically look for produce that appears attractive and survives shipping well. The pawpaw’s appearance can keep some food shoppers who don’t know about the deliciousness inside from trying it. Handling and transporting the fruit can also be injurious to it, as I found out in just transporting one pawpaw to my deck to take some photos.

A bowl of pawpaws
Despite their wonderful, tropical taste, pawpaws. their appearance can discourage newcomers to this marvelous fruit.

The pawpaw is also known to have a short shelf life. Although the ones we got from the farm market just kept getting better for the week or so we had them, the skins not only turned darker and darker, the flavor and texture continued to change. To me, this seemed to me more of a culinary adventure rather than a downside, but I can see the grocery stores’ being dubious about the pawpaws’ display appeal.

If not growing pawpaws for fruit, how about for landscaping? “Even if pawpaw did not produce a single fruit, its small stature, its tolerance of shade and sun, its bold yet graceful large leaves with a golden glow in the fall, and its native plant prominence in our forests make it a splendid

Zebra Swallowtail butterfly on foliage
The Zebra Swallowtail butterfly will only lay its eggs on pawpaw trees.

choice for any landscape,” SPES-316 suggests. The Common Pawpaw is also deer resistance and is the only plant in Virginia and most other states to host the caterpillar of the “strikingly beautiful,” native Zebra Swallowtail butterfly.

In 2019, VEC hosted a workshop on cultivation on “basic” pawpaw production presented by Neal Peterson. After a lot of searching, I didn’t find much on other programs or events aimed at pawpaw production. There are a few pawpaw festivals in Virginia, but some don’t draw enough people to sustain them.

Want to know more about pawpaws? While doing my own research on them I ran into several great recommendations for the book “Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit,” by Andy Moore. I downloaded a Kindle version and can’t wait to get into it. Maybe Moore can answer some of the questions I still have about this native tree and the amazing fruit it produces and plan to report back on what I find. Meanwhile, I can’t wait continue my love affair with pawpaws next fall.

A pawpaw split open to show the flesh inside
While the flesh of this very mature pawpaw may look unappetizing, It tastes like caramel custard with tropical overtones.


Adventures in Nature

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