In Pursuit of the Elusive Pawpaw

By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, October 12, 2006

The old children's song makes it sound easy. "Where, oh where, is sweet little Susie? Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch. . . . Pickin' up pawpaws, puttin' 'em in her pocket. "

But where, oh where, are the pawpaws now? So scarce is this delectable fruit that most of us have never tasted one, let alone found a patch where they litter the ground, even though they're native to most of the eastern United States.

I first held a pawpaw in my hand in September, the month they ripen. It was green, smooth and fragrant, rather like a small mango. But when I sliced it in half, there was no large pit, just pale, golden flesh and two rows of dark seeds like large, flat kidney beans. Scooping out a spoonful, I encountered a pulp as smooth, sweet and delicious as the creamiest custard, the richest ice cream. Where had it been all my life?

Several facts of nature make pawpaws elusive. They are woodland understory plants that need shade to protect seedlings. If the forest is cut, they may not regrow. Thus they are no longer as ubiquitous as they were when Indians, settlers and explorers counted on them for food.

Pollination -- iffy because the female flower parts mature before the male ones -- is accomplished sporadically by certain beetles and flies. The plants reproduce more readily by suckering from the roots to form wide clumps. In the wild, the fruits are less numerous, smaller, fragile -- too perishable to ship.

Early in the 20th century, U.S. breeders set out to domesticate the pawpaw, selecting for better size, firm skin, dense flesh and fewer seeds. Later, progress stalled, and many improved varieties were lost. But in 1975 Neal Peterson, a young graduate student at West Virginia University, picked up a wild fruit from the ground and sampled it. From then on he made it his goal to track down the historical orchards. He created the PawPaw Foundation and bred a series of outstanding cultivars named for U.S. rivers -- Susquehanna, Shenandoah, Allegheny, Rappahannock. It was one of these that gave me my first seductive taste.

On Sept. 25 I was present when Slow Food U.S.A. bestowed its Betsy Lydon Award on Peterson. The event was celebrated at Savoy restaurant in New York, where Chef Peter Hoffman prepared a tasty and inventive pawpaw feast including pawpaw daiquiris, pawpaw salad with crawdads and a pawpaw sorbet -- a dish so creamy it was hard to believe it contained only pawpaw, lime and a bit of sugar. Such uncooked preparations, I learned, do the most justice to this delicate flavor. The pulp -- and even whole fruits -- can also be frozen.

Pawpaw season runs from late August to early October. Those I first tried were grown by Jim Davis of Deep Run Pawpaw Orchard in Westminster, Md., and purchased through Heritage Foods at . (Look for them, too, next September, when Davis will sell them at farmers markets in Kensington and Berryville, Va.)

Though scarce now, this crop has a bright future. The fruits are exceptionally nutritious, and other parts of the plant contain both cancer-fighting and insecticidal properties. The idea of homegrown pawpaws is even more irresistible. When grown to a single trunk, they make a small, handsome landscape tree with long, drooping leaves -- bright yellow in fall. They like deep, rich, moist and well-drained soil and benefit from mulch. Although small seedlings must be shaded for a year or two, older grafted specimens take more sun and bear sooner.

Like the fruits, pawpaw trees are hard to find, though not impossible. Peterson's nursery in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. ( ), is sold out of his choice varieties for 2007 but is taking orders for shipping in spring 2008. The catalogue One Green World, based in Molalla, Ore., will start taking orders in mid-November for delivery in the spring (877-353-4028, ). You will usually need more than one cultivar for cross-pollination and may even want to hand-pollinate to boost your yields. Lee Reich's book "Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden" has a good description of this process. Kentucky State University ( ) also gives sound growing advice.

It would also be fun just to scatter the seeds of several varieties informally, cover them with mulch and see what seedlings emerge. Pawpaws are the only larval host of the zebra swallowtail butterfly -- reason enough to plant them -- and deer leave them alone. Let them form a leafy thicket at the edge of the woods, next to a stream, way down yonder. But not too far from the kitchen door.

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