Ask someone if they want a pawpaw and they might think you’re speaking about your pet’s foot. No, a pawpaw is a sweet fruit grown on trees, reminiscent of a tropical fruit such as a mango, a banana or a pineapple. In fact, a pawpaw looks similar to a mango—just a pale green.
While pawpaws have a custardy, tropical-flavored inside, they are native to North America and thrive in Virginia. While not as well-known in the 21st century, they were a dietary staple for centuries, as they are also nutritious and high in vitamin C, magnesium, iron, copper, manganese and several amino acids, according to the Virginia Cooperative Extension. Additionally, the fruit contains riboflavin, niacin, calcium, phosphorus and zinc.
There are several spellings of the fruit, from pawpaw to pawpaw to paw paw, but no matter how it’s spelled custardy textured flesh is delicious as is. It’s also common in jams, jellies, pies, tarts, smoothies and ice cream.
You can still find them growing wild, usually along the edge of a forest, though some cultivate them in their gardens.
Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were passionate about pawpaws, according to the Virginia Cooperative Extension. They planted and cultivated them at Mount Vernon and Monticello. Even explorers Lewis and Clark subsisted on pawpaws, according to their journals.
Pawpaws don’t just taste good, “Pawpaw was an important fruit during colonial times, and is now growing in popularity more for its taste and nutritional value,” said Dr. Reza Rafie, a horticulture professor and an Extension specialist for the Virginia Cooperative Extension at Virginia State University. “Pawpaw is easy to grow, and has good potential for local markets.”
The pawpaw tree is the only temperate-climate member of custard apple family, according to the Smithsonian. They will thrive in snow and ice and that’s why you can find them from Ontario to Florida and Michigan to Texas—and everywhere in-between. In Ohio, there is an annual pawpaw festival in September, just as the fruit is at its peak.
Stanardsville resident Gretchen Stelling loves this time of year—when the pawpaws ripen.
“You don’t pick off the trees; you wait until they fall. They’ll produce all month,” she said as we walked around her trees. “I wait for them to ripen and fall off, but sometimes if I’m really desperate for one I’ll come out and squeeze them to see if they’re soft (ripe) and pull it off the tree if I can find one.”
There is an old Appalachian folk song, according to the Smithsonian, which talks about harvesting the fruit from the ground. The pawpaws were a staple of the fall Appalachian diet.
Picking up paw-paws, puttin’ ‘em in your pocket, Picking up paw-paws, puttin’ ‘em in your pocket, Picking up paw-paws, puttin’ ‘em in your pocket, Way down yonder in the paw-paw patch.
Stelling has three pawpaw trees on her property and anyone interested in adding to their own landscaping will need at least two for pollination to occur, she said.
“Get a seedling and give them a lot of room. These two were seedlings from Edible Landscaping (in Afton),” she noted. “Shade them somewhat when they’re young because they’re used to being at the edge of the woods.”
They take about seven to eight years to produce the fruit.
Pawpaws grow in bunches on the trees and are not too much work, though during our dry spell this summer she did get out there to water them.
“They grow well here because they’re native,” she said. “I have persimmon trees too and I don’t have to do anything with them unless it’s really dry, then I’ll throw a hose on them.”
Take a knife (or thumb) to open the pawpaw to eat the custardy meal below the skin.
Stelling also has apple, peach, pecan and pear trees on her property, in addition to her potager, or kitchen garden, with ready-to-cut flowers, fruits and vegetables.
“The bears have on their calendars when peaches are going to become ripe; I never get any,” she said.