PawPaw fruit hang in a tree

Pawpaws are America’s hidden edible treasure. Here’s how to pick them.

Native to 26 states, North America’s largest fruit is ripe for picking in late summer.

Because of its short harvest season and shelf life, pawpaw fruits are difficult to distribute and remain largely unfamiliar to most Americans. At Kentucky State University’s orchard, seen here, researchers aim to make it a more commercial crop.
Photograph by Jonathan Palmer, Kentucky State University

On the outside, a pawpaw looks like a green mango. But inside, you’ll find golden, custard-like flesh cradling glossy, dark seeds. It tastes like a banana crossed with pineapple and mango, with notes of vanilla, and some say, cantaloupe. Its tropical flavors seem at odds with its native soil: the temperate forests of North America.

Believe it or not, the delicious pawpaw is as American as apple pie and baseball. Indigenous communities have been cultivating it long before its first written documentation, as early as 1541. In 1916, agriculturalists believed pawpaw crops were most likely to succeed ahead of other American favorites, including blueberries and cranberries. But somewhere along the way, the pawpaw disappeared from the American consciousness.

The problem, experts say, is that both the fruit’s picking season and shelf life are unfortunately short. Pawpaw trees bear fruit for only about six weeks in late summer, the fruit bruises easily and, after picking, only lasts a few days—about a week, refrigerated—presenting significant commercial challenges.

The good news is that the continent’s largest edible fruit (sometimes 6 inches long or longer) hasn’t disappeared from the American landscape. In fact, if you want to go hunting for pawpaw, now’s the time to do it. You can find the fruit growing in the wild from late August to mid-October, from the Mid-Atlantic to the Midwest, and even in urban settings including Washington, D.C.

In all likelihood, you will not find pawpaw at your supermarket and, although you might find pawpaw at a local farmer’s market, your best bet may be to pluck one fresh from a tree. Here’s what you need to know to pick a perfect pawpaw.

Pawpaw particulars

Culinary historians speculate that the pawpaw arrived in North America thousands of years ago, along with large animals migrating north.

For eastern Native American tribes, the pawpaw had always been a harvest staple. Sean Sherman, co-owner of The Sioux Chef in Minneapolis and founder of North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NATIFS), says the pawpaw’s disappearance is closely related to shameful treatment of Native communities.

While foodies may say the pawpaw is undergoing a renaissance, Sherman says it’s really a reclamation of long-buried culinary culture that was lost because of the relocation and genocide of Indigenous peoples in North America.

Sherman says much of the native pawpaw growth was lost during colonial deforestation to make way for farming. Even so, pawpaw that survived throughout Appalachia did become part of that region’s culinary history.

Cultivating pawpaw is a key area of study for Kirk Pomper, who heads up the Kentucky State University (KYSU) pawpaw research program. He helps teach farmers to grow pawpaw in orchards, and conducts scientific research to make the pawpaw a more commercial crop. “Now that doesn’t mean that we’re trying to make it be the next apple or banana,” says Pomper, but it does mean breeding better tasting varieties of the fruit.

Adjusting for taste is important, says Sheri Crabtree, a horticulture research and extension associate at KYSU, because some wild pawpaw can have bitter or other “off” flavors; they can be “turpentine-y or just bland,” she says. “We would like to have some more unique flavors among cultivars, like some varieties have a more pronounced melon, coconut, or pineapple flavor.”

Neal Peterson, who’s been studying the pawpaw since he first came upon them in West Virginia in the early 1970s, is a breeder of some of the best new varieties. Peterson, who studied plant genetics and agricultural economics, spent decades growing, testing, and tasting the fruit at the University of Maryland, breeding two of the best varieties: the Susquehanna and the Shenandoah.

Pawpaw varieties are assessed on their flavor, yield, fruit size, texture, and disease resistance, Crabtree says. She adds that the “best varieties” would be high yield trees that produce a pawpaw with “firmness and/or creaminess that’s not watery, mushy, or gritty” as well as a lower percentage of seeds.

Hunting for pawpaw

Native to 26 states, pawpaw can be found along the East Coast between Ontario, Canada, and northern Florida west to Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan, Nebraska, Kansas, and even Texas.

Still, most people have never heard of the fruit. Despite making his Paw Paw Lemonade just about 30 minutes from the town of Paw Paw, West Virginia, Todd Helmick says about 60 percent of his customers have no prior knowledge of the fruit. At the upcoming 24th annual Ohio Pawpaw Festival, which draws 10,000 people and is one of at least 13 pawpaw festivals held each fall, he expects a different response. Helmick will be among the vendors selling everything from pawpaw ice creams and cakes to pawpaw jams and beer.

The pawpaw has also found a home on seasonal restaurant menus all over the country. “Interest in local foods and sustainably grown foods, the slow food movement, and greater consumer acceptance of the fruit,” are all key to upping the appeal of the pawpaw, says Crabtree.

When chef Pepe Moncayo of D.C.’s Cranes serves up pawpaw (last year, fermented pawpaw in a kombucha sauce served with pink snapper), he says 95 percent of his guests ask what it is. So he added a little show and-tell. “We introduce the dish, verbally, and when eyebrows frown, we’ll bring a piece of the fruit and show them,” says Moncayo.

Chef William Dissen, who has three restaurants in North Carolina, including The Market Place in Asheville uses pawpaw when it’s in season for ice creams, vinegars, pies, barbecue sauces, and cakes. Because it’s “very volatile and loses flavor and vibrancy quickly when cooked,” Allison Sesnovich, a pastry chef at Mabel Gray outside of Detroit, sticks to creations that don’t require heat, like her “pawnoffee” tart, a play on the British banoffee which is, classically, a pie with bananas, cream, and caramel.

If you really want to get wild with pawpaw, head to Hocking Hills, Ohio, and the Inn & Spa at Cedar Falls. At the hotel restaurant, chef Matt Rapposelli serves pawpaw cocktails, dressings, marinades and cheesecake, while the onsite spa offers pawpaw facials.

In the D.C. area, pawpaw trees are abundant—look out for the understory growths of trees 15 to 30 feet in height, with large, pointed oval leaves. If you don’t want to put on your hiking shoes, you’ll find them in the middle of the District in the gardens around the National Museum of the American Indian or the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Just know that any fruit you may see growing is not for picking, just for peeping.

For a pawpaw harvest, hit a sunlit trail near the popular C&O Canal, where the National Park Service permits picking up to a half gallon of pawpaw fruit per day for personal use. A National Historical Park, the canal features a 184.5-mile towpath wending its way beside the Potomac River, near waterfalls and rapids, and beside waterways where pawpaw thrive.

Cari Shane is a journalist based in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter.

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