The Popular Pawpaw: Science Intervenes in Future of Elusive Fruit

The Popular Pawpaw: Science Intervenes in Future of Elusive Fruit

We’re entering the time of year in southern Ontario where the early fruits start showing up. I’m lucky: my faves are strawberries, so, unlike apple or peach fans, I don’t have to wait too long to dig in!

I love a local fruit, so I was quite surprised to read about one I’d never heard of, via the BBC of all places. The pawpaw is a fragrant, mango-like, ancient fruit that grows wild in half the United States and into our neck of the woods. It has a huge fandom, but, as the pawpaw spoils a few days after being picked — and, as serious devotees attest, is truly ideal freshly harvested from the tree — that’s limited to a pretty short range around its habitat. Advocates have been spreading the word, though, and now science is listening.

“‘They are so delicious,’ said Michael Judd, author of For the Love of Paw Paws: A Mini Manual for Growing and Caring for Paw Paws – From Seed to Table. During the harvest season (typically a few weeks in late summer or early autumn), his diet consists mainly of pawpaws taken right off the branch. ‘It’s a nutrient-rich superfood,’ he added, listing off the pawpaw’s many attributes: antioxidants, all the amino acids, magnesium, copper, zinc, iron, potassium, phosphorus, vitamin C. […]

Iowa State University is developing a pawpaw variety with a longer shelf life and a larger fruit with fewer seeds.

Kentucky State University has a pawpaw programme too. ‘We’re interested in pawpaw from an ecological standpoint as a native plant that is losing habitat, and from a horticultural standpoint as a unique high-value fruit crop that can be grown sustainably since it’s well suited for the climate,’ said [KSU research associate Sheri] Crabtree. She noted that over the past 20 years she’s seen awareness of the fruit grow, driven by the shift toward sustainable and local food production and the Slow Food movement. Some of that attention is also driven by efforts to honour indigenous foods. As Mihesuah pointed out, ‘Tribes are attempting to protect and revitalise their traditional food sources, and pawpaws are an important part.’”

My envy at hearing of this fabulous fruit that I’ve totally missed out in quickly galvanized me to find out where in our fair province I could find them. The University of Guelph has a pretty vague map, and a cursory Google around implies that most wild stands are found by word of mouth, and generally protected by fans to prevent over-harvesting. Well, I may try my hand at growing them myself (in pairs of trees, as they don’t self-fertilize), or wait for Science to brew up those shelf-stable fruits that can be shipped up here. Either way, the day I finally taste a pawpaw will be memorable indeed!