For a fruit that doesn’t fall far from the tree, the apple has sure gotten around. Thank the itinerant 19th-century orchardist John Chapman, known as Johnny Appleseed, for planting this import in much of the country and making it as American as Mom — at least in pie.
But what about our delectable native fruit, the papaw? Although it once thrived throughout the eastern United States, only a small percentage of Americans have ever tasted it, and those who have even heard of it tend to confuse it with the tropical papaya, which it definitely is not. Cold-hardy but tropical-tasting, it looks a bit like a mango, but with pale yellow, custardy, spoonable flesh and black, shiny, easy-to-remove seeds.
According to my friend Jennifer Kline, it’s no surprise that a crop growing right under our noses is so obscure. “Something has to be a supermarket staple for people to know it exists,” she says. And the easily bruised papaw is too fragile a product for long-distance shipping.
As a young horticulturist, Kline has made it her mission to get this treasure into people’s back yards. The modern-day Jenny Papawseed was born in Mansfield, Ohio, a town where the famous Johnny lived from time to time and did much of his work. She now works at the Queens Botanical Garden in New York (as a compost specialist).
“I want to spread papaws everywhere because they were everywhere,” she explains. Once-abundant wild populations declined as forests were cleared, and many would-be growers do not realize that these understory plants, which grow in thickets, do best in a wooded setting. (Even the village of Paw Paw, Mich., has few of them now, since the trees that once lined the Paw Paw River were cut down.)
By growing trial plots at the botanical garden, a community garden and her parents’ home in Mansfield, Kline proved to herself the papaw’s preference for partial shade and its suitability for today’s small, shaded yards. Plant more than one variety to ensure good pollination, she advises. Feed them plenty of compost and they will thrive, unimpaired by insect pests that bother other fruits — the apple, for example.
Kentucky State University has compiled a list of mail-order nurseries that sell young trees. Forrest Keeling Nursery in Elsberry, Mo., (www.forrestkeeling.com) sells the improved selections of West Virginia papaw breeder and guru Neal Peterson.
If you’d like to take a bite first, you’re in luck, because the short papaw season began in late August and lasts through September. Papaws show up at local farmers markets: Local grower Stanton Gill plans to have them available this weekend at the Kensington Farmers’ Market on Saturday and the Olney Farmers and Artists Market on Sunday. If you don’t find them locally, make a note to order a box from Heritage Foods USA (www.heritagefoodsusa.com). Another source of shipped fruit is Integration Acres in Albany, Ohio (www.integration
acres.com). If you want the full papaw experience, head to Albany for the Ohio Pawpaw Festival, to be held Sept. 16 to 18.
Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of “The Garden Primer.”