By Paul Aron
A fruit that is not so well-known in modern times was a staple for early Americans. In his diary, George Washington noted in 1785: “Planted all my cedars, all my papaw, and two honey locust trees.” In 1786, when he was minister to France, Thomas Jefferson had pawpaw seeds and plants shipped from Virginia to friends in Europe. And in 1806, when Lewis and Clark were running out of food, they survived by eating wild “poppaws.”
The Powhatan Indians ate the pawpaws from both wild and cultivated pawpaw trees long before English settlers arrived, and the early settlers were aware of the fruit. Enslaved African Americans foraged for pawpaws to supplement their diet, and at stations along the underground railroad they sometimes heard where to look for them. An old Appalachian folk song celebrates the fruit with lyrics that note that you can find pretty little Susie: “way down yonder in the pawpaw patch.”
The fruit of the pawpaw is nutritious — it is high in vitamin C, amino acids and iron and is a good source of potassium — and delicious, with a custardy texture and a flavor that’s often compared to that of a mango or a melon or a banana or a pineapple. It’s also very large — sometimes weighing more than a pound.
Yet the pawpaw remains largely unfamiliar to many Americans, and even those who have tasted the fruit often assume it must be tropical. They are surprised to learn it can grow not only in Virginia but also farther north. Ohio, for example, holds its annual pawpaw festival in September. This year marks the 20th celebration, where festival-goers enjoy three days of pawpaw music, food, art and history. At least seven states have named a town after the pawpaw.
In the Historic Area of Colonial Williamsburg, pawpaws are cultivated in the gardens at the George Wythe House, the William Lightfoot House and the Colonial Garden and Nursery. Nearby, in the woods behind Bassett Hall and along the York and James rivers, large groves grow wild.
“We try to show the diversity of plant life in the 18th century,” said Laura Viancour, Colonial Williamsburg’s director of landscape services. “And we are particularly interested in preserving and presenting native plants like the pawpaw.”
Why has a fruit that was once so appreciated been largely forgotten?
For one thing, the male and female parts of the plant mature at different times. With abundant pawpaw trees in their native setting, pollination occurs more easily than when just one or two trees are planted in a garden.
Even more problematic is the short shelf life of pawpaws. Native Americans and Colonists were used to taking advantage of seasonal foods, but getting pawpaws to supermarkets is difficult.
“The fruit goes from ripe to rotten in a matter of days,” said Eve Otmar, journey-man supervisor at the Colonial Garden on Duke of Gloucester Street. “Urban populations that don’t garden never experience the fruit.”
With seasonal and local and organic produce increasingly popular, pawpaws may be poised for a comeback.
“Unlike so many fruit trees, pawpaws are virtually unaffected by pests and are easily grown organically,” said Andrew Moore in his 2015 book Pawpaw. “Native-plant and butterfly gardeners appreciate the tree both as a larval host and for its important niche in forest ecosystems. And because paw-paws are highly nutritious, they’re gaining the interest of health-conscious eaters.”
Still, the vast majority of Americans have never heard of a pawpaw, let alone tasted one.
Viancour noted that, with more and more wooded areas disappearing, it’s all the more important to cultivate them in gardens. “All they need is some initial shade and growing more than one to assist with the pollination of the flowers,” she said.
Otmar agreed they are not difficult to grow, especially if a gardener is willing to let them spread. “They tolerate most soil types and they’ll form a ‘colony,’” she said. “Once someone tries the fruit at its peak of ripeness, they are bound not to forget the sweet creamy taste.”
Moore recounted how he stumbled across a dense growth of pawpaws while driving on the Colonial Parkway between Williamsburg and Yorktown. He couldn’t resist stopping to fill a bag with fruit. Returning to his car, he found a park ranger had pulled over beside it.
“I must look like a feverish madman, shaggy-haired, way too wide-eyed and excited, holding a bag of mushy green orbs,” said Moore. The park ranger gave him a wave and Moore drove on.
“He’s a ranger here; maybe he’s seen this before,” Moore concluded. “Pickin’ up pawpaws.”