WHAT’S THE LARGEST FRUIT native to the United States—and no, don’t say apple, because though they have been on this continent a long time, apples aren’t a native plant. Here’s a hint: The fruit in question tastes like a tropical blend of banana and mango (even though it grows wild in 26 American states with climates that are anything but tropical).
The answer is the pawpaw, and to say that Andrew Moore has a passion for pawpaws and encyclopedic knowledge about them would be an understatement.
The Florida-born and Pittsburgh-based writer was just 25ish years old when he began work on what is now the book “Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit,” and he did indeed go on a search for it, or maybe more of a magical mystery tour–through history, horticulture and literally around the nation with many unexpected adventures along the way.
On my public-radio show and podcast, Andy and I talked about some highlights of his journey, along with pawpaw-growing practicalities. Read along as you listen to the Nov. 30, 2015 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
my pawpaw q&a with andrew moore
Q. The journey of making the book began with fundraising via a Kickstarter campaign in 2012, so you could travel around to research everything about this fruit. But when did you meet your first pawpaw and get the bug?
A. It was actually a few years before the Kickstarter. I was invited by a friend to come to this Ohio Pawpaw Festival. I was new to Pittsburgh and I was making friends in the region, and certainly didn’t know anything about the pawpaw.
So I said, “Sure, I’ll go to this festival,” and I went there and learned as much as I could learn in a few days. I came back from that festival just wanting to know more and more. I looked everywhere for pawpaws—wild pawpaws—when I got back to Pittsburgh. If I was driving along or biking around, I’d go off into the woods and see if there were any there.
I didn’t know what I was doing, and I wasn’t looking in the right places, but I was looking. And then you know the interest didn’t leave me, and so the following year I went to a conference in Kentucky. They don’t have it all that often, but maybe every 10 years or so they have a pawpaw conference in Kentucky, and I went to that and met people who were working with pawpaw and had dedicated their lives to it.
That’s really when I knew I wanted to write this book—when I knew these stories of people who had dedicated their lives to it. It became not just a mystery and a forgotten fruit, but something that was alive, and that people were working with even today.
A. There are a few things about pawpaw that if you’re interested in plants at all make it just absolutely fascinating. One of those things: It belongs to the tropical custard apple or Annonaceae family. All of its relatives, everything it’s related to, are found only in the tropics. Only the pawpaw is hardy enough and exists in the temperate North.
It’s a vast family of over 2,000 species that are found in the tropics…and then there’s the pawpaw. It’s not only hardy to warm-temperate regions, but it’s hardy all the way to southern Michigan and parts of New York, and the cold banks of the Great Lakes. This is a plant that has these tropical origins, roots, yet it’s something that grows in cold weather.
Not only that history, but the relationship to these tropical plants is definitely clear when you taste the pawpaw. It really has a flavor and a texture that’s unlike anything else you find in the North. It’s very tropical; it’s in that custard apple family and that means it has a custard-like texture, that’s a very true and a very apt name for the family. And then its flavor is often described as a banana or mango cross, and those are really good ways to describe it for the uninitiated.
Q. I’ve always pronounced the genus and species Asimina triloba one way, but it might not be right—and botanical Latin was a written language, anyway, I believe. How do you say it?
A. I was saying it like you were, but I went to this conference and everyone was saying, uh-SIMM-uh-nuh and I thought, “Well, I’d better say it the way they’re saying it.”
Q. Especially if you talk to an English horticulturist about the same plant you’ve been saying one way, they put the accent on a different syl-AH-bull [laughter].
A. One of the things I think is really fascinating about the pawpaw’s Latin name is that Asimina is actually derived from a few Native American languages. Native Americans had as many names for the fruit as there were languages. A number of tribes and linguistic groups referred to the fruit as something sounding like Asimina, and that’s actually where we get it from. I think that’s a lovely little footnote that this native word lives on in this fruit.
A. If you start at the state of Kentucky, and branch outward, you’re in pawpaw country. West Virginia, Ohio—particularly southern Ohio and central Ohio—those are really great pawpaw states. You’re going to find not only good pawpaws, but they are abundant. They’re all along creeks and roadsides and the like in those states.
But the range extends far. I’ve seen pawpaws near the Atlantic Ocean in Virginia. As I mentioned earlier, they’re native to southern Michigan and as far west even as eastern Nebraska, or Iowa, and you can find pawpaws down South in isolated patches in the Florida Panhandle and southern Louisiana.
Q. Why would I want to grow one, besides the delicious taste and sort of unusual or curiosity aspect?
A. First of all, I think the fruit quality is enough—that unusual taste; that’s a good enough reason. Second, you’re not going to really find pawpaws in grocery stores. There are a few farmers’ markets if you’re lucky enough to live in a community that has a pawpaw grower. So if you want this thing, you kind of need to grow it.
As far as fruits go, it doesn’t really have pests. There is a gorgeous butterfly that feeds on the leaf, and a few other minor pests, but basically you’re not going to need to spray a pawpaw the way you might be tempted to spray apples or peaches for pests.
It’s something that can be grown organically. It’s true that once you get a pawpaw established, you don’t really have to work too hard on it to get it to thrive.
Q. You mentioned apples, and make an interesting comparison in the book—you contrast growing a crop of apples versus one of pawpaws. You just explained one of the differences, that you can buy an apple anywhere and can’t buy a pawpaw, and in the book you write that if perhaps apples are the backbone of a large-scale orchard, pawpaws are by comparison “the spice of life.”
A. If you’re trying to make a robust living, or even if you’re just a homesteader and want to grow as much food as you can to feed your family, certainly an apple is a great choice. It can be stored for a very long time. You can cook with it, or eat it fresh. You can do all kinds of things with an apple, like make cider, or if you have an abundance, you can sell it, because there is a reliable market for apples.
But we should have other things in our lives, too. The pawpaw has a shorter shelf life, and won’t store fresh very long. But it’s so unusual, and so special, like you said the spice of life. It’s those unusual things that make growing and eating interesting and fun. It is a special thing to have—it has a short season. The tree produces for about 30 days, and that’s a special time for pawpaw people. It comes in that short period of time, and you enjoy it, and it’s a way to mark the season and to enjoy your garden.
A. Yes. You cannot pick it early. If you pick a pawpaw early it will not ripen. That’s a difficulty for a commercial grower. You’d have to feel for ripeness. One thing people do to get around that, is they just wait for the fruit to fall. So if your listeners know that American folk song, “Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch, picking up pawpaws put them in a pocket…” There is truth to that line. Often if Americans were going to the woods to pick up pawpaws, they wouldn’t necessarily pick them ripe from the trees. They’d find them ripe on the ground. That’s certainly a marker to know when the fruit is ripe.
Q. I love the expression windfall, in both its meanings. So when fruit is on the ground, it’s the windfall.
Your magical mystery tour, as I keep calling it, took you to meet many people who share your passion for pawpaws, and we can’t mention them all because the book is loaded with characters. But let’s highlight a couple. Maybe Neal Peterson first?
A. Neal Peterson [photo below taken in his breeding nursery in 1992] is in our modern times the most important figure in pawpaw. He’s often called kind of a Johnny Pawpawseed kind of a character. What Neal did: He discovered the fruit like I had in the woods; someone introduced it to him, in 1975.
But unlike myself and so many other people, Neal had skills as a horticulturist and was driven to try to do something with the pawpaw that nobody else had done.
He wanted to do a breeding experiment. He wanted to gather the best pawpaws people knew about and put them in an orchard, the same way universities look at apples and try to find different cultivars. He wanted to do that with pawpaw, and he did it. Over a couple of thousand selections that he grew from seed, he found the best varieties and this was a journey that took him decades.
He spent decades growing these trees out, and then evaluating the fruit, and then conducting market research. He took the fruit to market and then some of the best pawpaws were released. He named his varieties the same way you might name your ‘Golden Delicious’ apple, and he named trees after American rivers with Indian names, sort of in tribute to those original horticulturists that grew the fruit. He has varieties names ‘Shenandoah,’ ‘Susquehanna,’ ‘Potomac’ after these American rivers.
They are really among the best pawpaws anyone has come across. They’re reliably large, they taste great—there is no bitter aftertaste. They’re just really great pawpaws.
Q. Is Neal’s contribution ongoing?
A. Neal is more or less done with his advanced selections; he has released those pawpaws to the world. But he’d still tinkering. What he’s currently doing is hybridizing the Asimina triloba, the pawpaw that we know, with these other subspecies that are found in Florida, that are more shrublike. He’s breeding for a more ornamental plant that would still be cold-hardy like Asimina triloba. Those Florida pawpaws have larger flowers and they have whites, maroons and creams. He’s still working, but he has lent his eye to the ornamental stuff now.
Q. He’s in the real connoisseur stuff now. You said shrub-like, but how big is your average pawpaw tree in the wild versus what he’s shooting for now?
A. Your average pawpaw trees in the wild are often around 12 feet tall, but you can get a really big one that about 30. If you plant a pawpaw in full sun in your garden, it could get to 30 feet, or in some cases I have seen 40, but those are exceptional cases.
The shrublike pawpaws that you see in Florida that have a smaller, less-tasty fruit—more of a wildlife fruit—those shrubs are no taller than 5 feet tall on average.
A. They’re a nodding flower, sort of like the triloba we have in the North. They have three petals, but are much larger. Some are actually white or cream-colored, so some of the hybrids Neal is coming up with are blended flowers, white and maroon. Really beautiful plants.
Q. Let’s make another quick pitstop: at the Ohio Pawpaw Festival, which I think you said is where it all began for you.
A. In the book I call it the capital of the pawpaw country. That festival is the brainchild of Chris Chmiel, a farmer in southern Ohio and like myself and Neal, when he learned about pawpaws he became fascinated, and obsessed even.
Chris is an entrepreneur [above, his image on a product], so he wanted to become a pawpaw farmer. Part of that was also promoting the fruit, so he created this festival, which attracts over 8,000 folks to southern Ohio for a three-day festival. There is live music, pawpaw food, pawpaw eating contests, pawpaw beer. It has really become this hub of energy. It celebrates pawpaw but it also celebrates sustainable living and permaculture—that’s the type of farming that Chris Chmiel does.
He has done some really interesting things. He integrates his livestock with his orchard and he is integrating goats, in fact, into his pawpaw orchard. There is a chemical in pawpaw leaves and twigs that make it so goats don’t want to eat it—which is wonderful, because goats eat just about everything.
Q. [Laughter.] They do indeed.
A. So he’s discovered this really interesting way of cropping a fruit orchard with livestock. The goats in turn with their manure fertilize the trees, and the manure also attracts flies and beetles, which are the pollinators of pawpaws. Pawpaws are not pollinated by bees.
Q. We have a mutual friend, Lee Reich, who grows pawpaw not far from me, so let’s say I want to grow one, too. Where do I begin—I’m not going to find it at my local garden center, probably, and what do I give it and so on? What’s the home-pawpaw-growing 101?
A. The first thing you need to do is find a source, because as you said your local garden center or Home Depot probably won’t have one. In the book I have an appendix of nurseries, but they can be found online, and ship just about anywhere in the country. [Some of Andy’s sources are listed in a box below.]
You can order them in various sizes, and you can order named cultivars.
There are seedling pawpaws, which will be unique trees, but you can also get a named variety, so you know the quality of the fruit you are getting, and the size. You can start there, and if you have limited space that may be more important to you. If you have a lot of space and can plant a lot of seedlings, you can roll the dice and see what you come up with.
But if you’ve only got room for two, you may want to get a cultivar so you know the quality ahead of time.
Q. Do I need to give it full sun?
A. The more sun you give a pawpaw, the more fruit it will produce. But it can do fine in shade, part shade or full sun. You can prune pawpaws—you can cut them back. I have even seen a pawpaw hedge. You can do a lot of things with pawpaw, and that’s one of the good reasons to plant it.
Q. Do I need more than one tree to have fruit?
A. You’ll need two genetically distinct pawpaws. If you’re buying cultivars, two different cultivars. If you’re buying seedling, two seedlings. Although the flowers have both male and female parts, they’re going to want a partner for reproduction.
Q. I have to ask you: How many do you have growing in your yard?
A. I’ve only got three; it’s a small yard. I’d certainly grow more if I had the space, but I grow the seeds by the hundreds and I plant them around town. I give them to friends. We’ve got a community farm in town and we’re planting them there as well. Everywhere I can stick a pawpaw, I’m trying.
Q. So you’re doing your own bit to become the next Johnny Pawpawseed, even though you already gave that name to someone else. [Laughter.]
A. It gets in your blood. You like these things and you want more of them. If you’ve got the seed, certainly plant it and grow it out.
pawpaw sources by mail
SOME OF THE SOURCES Andy Moore shares it he appendix of his book “Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit,” are listed below:
prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Nov. 30, 2015 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
enter to win the book ‘pawpaw’
I’LL BUY ONE READER a copy of Andy Moore’s “Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit.” to enter, comment in the box way at the bottom of the page, after the last reader comment, by answering this question:
Ever tasted a pawpaw, or grown one? If not, what’s the most unusual fruit you’ve sampled or grown?
Me? I have only tasted pawpaw once, and don’t have any growing here. Other than my ancient apples trees that I inherited with the place, most of my fruit is for the birds: viburnum, hollies, aronia, blueberry and such. I do grow a couple of fig trees in big pots.
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say, “count me in” or something like that, and I will. But an answer’s even better. I’ll select a random winner after entries close at midnight Sunday, December 6, 2015. Good luck to all.
(Photos courtesy of Andrew Moore. Disclosure: Purchases from Amazon affiliate links yield a small commission.)