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The ‘secret’ fruit that makes this time of year in Washington so sweet

There are two types of people in the region right now: Those who know it’s pawpaw season and those who’ve never heard of the fruit.

A pawpaw from Vargas's backyard. (Theresa Vargas /TWP)
6 min

If all goes as planned on Sunday, Niraj Ray will lead a group of strangers on a Washington-area hike in search of a fruit that has been called “secret” and “forgotten.”

If all goes as planned, that group will find the fruit resting under trees and dangling from branches, ripe and ready to be cut open.

If all goes as planned, the people in that group will get to taste a fruit that many in their lives don’t know exists.

If you’ve eaten pawpaws, then you know this truth about them: They are a sweet fruit made sweeter by the fact that many people don’t know about them. Some of the most interesting things in the Washington region exist in plain sight but go unseen. Pawpaws are one of them.

During this time of year, pawpaws burst from trees across the region. A person just needs to know where to look to find them and indulge in them. That’s where Ray comes in. The founder of Cultivate the City leads people on pawpaw foraging hikes every year during the short window they drop from trees — and, right now, they seem to be dropping more than usual.

Ray generally schedules two to three group foraging hikes each year, with the expectation that the first walk might not yield any ripe fruit. But this year has surprised him.

“Normally, on the first walk, people just see the fruit, and on the second walk, people get a ton of fruit,” he said. “This year, on the first walk, people loaded up.”

On Sunday, he expects them to load up again. He also decided a few days ago to schedule a third hike for Sept. 11.

“This is my favorite time of year,” Ray said. He described pawpaws as a “gateway” to get people engaged with foraging and urban agriculture. “It has everything we look for in a tropical fruit, and it grows right in our backyard.”

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If you’ve never heard of pawpaws, you’re far from alone. Mention them in casual conversation with colleagues or friends and you’ll likely get a “What?”

A few days ago on the D.C. Reddit page, a person posed this question: “Any ideas/insider tips on how to get pawpaws? I’d be willing to purchase them, but I’m also curious about trekking into the woods and looking for them myself. Where can I get more info? Thanks!”

One of the responses: “What in the world is a pawpaw?”

I’ve lived most of my adult life in the Washington region, and I hadn’t heard of pawpaws until my husband and I purchased a house in Northern Virginia several years ago. We discovered a handful of pawpaw trees in our backyard. Now, I hear about pawpaws daily during this time of year. My 9-year-old son has declared it his favorite fruit, and for the past few weeks, he has gone outside every morning to check our trees for ripe specimens. He has found more than ever.

My son describes the taste of pawpaws as “mango ice cream.” Others have characterized it as a mix between bananas and mango. A Washington Post headline in 2015 described them this way: “The best-tasting, biggest American fruit you probably haven’t tasted.”

That headline was followed by an excerpt from the book Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit.” The piece describes the fruit as growing wild in 26 states and having “sustained Native Americans, European explorers, presidents and enslaved African Americans.” It says this of George Washington: “If Washington wasn’t already acquainted with pawpaws as a boy in Virginia, he certainly would have discovered the fruit on campaigns in the mountains of that state, as well as in Pennsylvania. Everywhere he went was — and remains — pawpaw country.”

I reached out to Ray, who used to work for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to learn more about pawpaws. He noted that different types hold names that should sound familiar to people in the region. The name of some pawpaw varieties: Potomac, Shenandoah and Rappahannock.

“They are named after rivers in our area,” he said. “You can choose the name of a river around here and I guarantee you there is a pawpaw named after it.”

He said the thing that naturally keeps people away from wild pawpaws — the way they look when ripe — make them the perfect foraging fruit to teach people about.

“We want to teach people that appearance is just a small part of the value of fruit,” he said. He pointed to passion fruit, which he grows. “It’s all shriveled and doesn’t look good, but that’s when you open it up and it’s the sweetest inside. A good pawpaw should look similar to a banana that has sat on the counter too long. When it looks like what we would think is overripe, that’s when it’s perfect to eat.”

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Ray said he learned about pawpaws after moving to the Washington region. He and his now-wife first went foraging for them on Roosevelt Island in 2015. It was one of their first dates.

“We found one pawpaw, and it was the size of a small orange,” he recalled. “And I was so ecstatically happy.”

He said he went searching for them again the next year and every year after that. Once he started finding more than his family could eat, he started organizing the group hikes. He usually posts the sign-up for the first hike in January and the slots fill by May. Most of the people who sign up, he said, don’t know much about pawpaws.

“It’s people who have tasted the fruit once or they’ve heard of it,” he said. “It’s couples, families, groups of friends. We had a bachelorette party once.”

The group that went last weekend consisted of about 30 people, and about as many are expected to show up this weekend.

If all goes as planned, they will find pawpaws that are as small as pebbles and as large as mangoes.

If all goes as planned, they will find pawpaws in an array of flavors, because wild ones vary in sweetness and texture.

If all goes as planned, they won’t need Ray to show them where to find pawpaws next year. They will already know.