The Pawpaw: Foraging For America's Forgotten Fruit

Sep 29, 2011
Originally published on September 30, 2011 3:20 pm

So what the heck is a pawpaw?

Recently, I heard about a secret snack. Kayakers who paddle the waters near Washington, D.C., told me about a mango-like fruit that grows along the banks of the Potomac — a speckled and homely skin that hides a tasty treat.

A tropical-like fruit here, really? Yep. It's the only temperate member of a tropical family of trees. You can't buy the pawpaw in stores, so for years, the only way to eat them was straight from the tree.

I was intrigued. So I decided to hunt for a pawpaw myself.

D.C. nature guide Matt Cohen showed me how to find them.

We took the Billy Goat Trail on the Maryland side of the Potomac River. "Wow," was the first word out of my mouth when I tasted one we found on our hike. It's sort of mango-meets-the-banana ... with a little hint of melon.

Although you may not have heard of it, the pawpaw has quite a history. Thomas Jefferson had pawpaws at Monticello. And when he was minister to France in 1786, he had pawpaw seeds shipped over to friends there. He probably wanted to impress his friends with something exotic from America.

Lewis and Clark wrote in their journals that they were quite fond of the pawpaw. At one point during their expedition in 1806, they relied on pawpaws when other provisions ran low. And from Michigan to West Virginia, people have even named towns and lakes after the pawpaw.

But the pawpaw has only recently been commercialized. That's one reason you don't see it in the grocery store. So far, there are just a few orchards selling to farmers markets. This progress is largely thanks to the work of plant scientist Neal Peterson.

He has spent the past 35 years breeding the pawpaw to make it look and taste more like a fruit we'd buy. He has selected and grown varieties that are bigger, with more flesh.

After tasting his first wild pawpaw 35 years ago, he had a eureka moment.

"It was just a revelation," he says. Peterson thought that the pawpaw was every bit the rival of a perfect peach or apple — fruits that have had thousands of years of breeding.

Why hadn't someone done this with the pawpaw? "I could just instantly make that leap of imagination," he says.

And some three decades later, he has a lot to show for it. His pawpaws are being grown in a few orchards and sold at farmers markets.

And now it's moving beyond novelty. A food scientist at Ohio University, Rob Brannan, is interested in studying the nutrients in the pawpaw. So far, he has published one study that found the antioxidant count in the fruit to be pretty high.

"It's about the same as a cranberry" or a cherry, Brannan says.

If scientists could put a "health halo" over the pawpaw, Brannan says, it would give the fruit a commercial boost. It's happened before. Pomegranate juice, anyone?

"Yum — wonderful flavor," Joan Foster said after tasting her first pawpaw at the Olney Farm Market recently. She has been waiting a long time to try one. They're only available a few weeks out of the year — and this year's pawpaw season is just about over.

So if you're intrigued, come back again tomorrow for a few tips on where you can find pawpaw beer, pawpaw sorbet ... and pawpaw recipes.

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DAVID GREENE, host: Maybe you've been spending time along some of the rivers in the Eastern United States and you spot some kayakers who are paddling along and eating. Turns out they have a secret snack. This time of year they keep their eyes peeled for a mango-like fruit that grows wild along the riverbanks. The fruit is called the pawpaw, but as NPR's Allison Aubrey discovered, it might not be a secret much longer.

ALLISON AUBREY: There's nothing more delicious than a secret, right? So you'll understand why I wanted to get my hands on this fruit called a pawpaw, even if it means bush-whacking through a muddy river bank. .

MATT COHEN: This is fun, this is the hunt.

AUBREY: Matt Cohen is my guide. He's a professional forager. And he knows where the paw-paws grow.

And it looks like there's plenty of them still growing along the banks of the Potomac here. It's just matter of finding the fruit. Is that right?

COHEN: Oh yes.

AUBREY: So you're pretty sure that there's a patch right up here ahead?

COHEN: Yeah, there should be one right up here ahead.

AUBREY: Now, this is the American pawpaw, completely different from a papaya. And Cohen is a big fan. As we hike along, he's trying to catch a whiff of its distinctive scent, which he says is fruity - almost floral. He uses his nose to guide us.

OK, I'm feeling like we've got to be getting close, huh?

COHEN: Oh yeah, we're getting close to another patch.

AUBREY: He looks way up through the dappled light dancing around the branches, and he spots them. On a high branch we see what looks like three little mangos hanging in a cluster.

So this is a pawpaw. huh?

COHEN: That's it, yeah.

AUBREY: And when we shake one down from the tree and slice it open to taste it...


COHEN: What do you think?

AUBREY: Wow. It really does taste like a mango, but a little more perfumy, like maybe a little melon in there.

COHEN: Mmm, very tropical, huh? It kind of has a custardy texture. It's really surprising.

AUBREY: Now, if you go way back, people knew all about the pawpaw. Thomas Jefferson had them at Monticello. And when he was Minister to France, he even had pawpaw seeds sent to his friends there to show off something impressive that grew in his new country.

But pawpaws were never grown commercially, which is why you don't see them in grocery stores.

KELLY MACBRIDE GILL: Eighty out of 10, a dollar twenty will be your change...

AUBREY: There are hints that this could change. In the last five years a few commercial orchards have been planted and farmers markets from Maryland to Ohio have begun to introduce the fruit.

GILL: We have some people who have been asking us for weeks, you know, when does the season start, when are we going to start having pawpaws.

AUBREY: That's Farmer Kelly MacBride Gill. She's been selling pawpaws for a couple of years now. At first her customers who come from suburban DC had only one question - what the heck is a pawpaw? She had to convince them to try one. But this year?

GILL: Yeah, we had one box come down with my father who comes early and he had to call us at 8:00 a.m., being like we need more. Bring down the other two boxes, 'cause people get so excited that when they see it there's no hesitation.

AUBREY: None of this would ever have come to pass if it hadn't been for a man by the name of Neal Peterson. He's a plant scientist, and about 35 years ago he had a eureka moment. He took his first bite of a wild pawpaw.

NEAL PETERSON: It was just a revelation because they were really fine pawpaws.

AUBREY: Peterson thought this pawpaw was every bit the rival of a perfect peach or apple. And these fruits have had thousands of years of breeding to make them taste good.

PETERSON: And the pawpaw out in the woods is just like this without any breeding.

AUBREY: And the thought that came next was the beginning of his lifelong obsession: Maybe he could breed a commercial pawpaw.

PETERSON: I could just make that instantly, that leap of imagination.

AUBREY: It's taken his three decades, but those pawpaws that the customers at the farmer's market were so excited about, well, these are Neal Peterson's babies.

JOAN FOSTER: This is going to be quite a treat and probably...

AUBREY: At the Olney farm market, pawpaw newbie Joan Foster says she's been waiting a long time to try one. They're only available a few weeks out of the year.

FOSTER: Mmm, very good. Wonderful flavor. On my tongue, it says this is something new and wonderful and that I should continue it.

AUBREY: And the pawpaw may be more than just a fruit that tastes good. A few food scientists think they may have a super-fruit in their hands.

ROB BRANNAN: Well, with respect to the pawpaw, we're at the early stages of the research.

AUBREY: Rob Brannan is a food science professor at Ohio University. And he's been excited about the pawpaw ever since he did a study to evaluate the number of antioxidants in the fruit. He found it's pretty high.

BRANNAN: It's about the same as a cranberry. It's about the same as a cherry.

AUBREY: And that's not a bad start, he says. If scientists could put a health halo over the pawpaw, well, Brannan thinks it could give the fruit a commercial boost. It's happened before. Take the case of the pomegranate. A generation ago the pomegranate was just a specialty item. But not now.

BRANNAN: There was an individual who decided that they were going to buy farms in California and grow pomegranates, and they spent upwards of 15 to 30 million dollars to fund research that showed the benefits of the pomegranate.

AUBREY: Clearly the pawpaw doesn't have much health research behind it, at least not yet. Nor does it have a patron. But it does have something that people are looking for. It's local. It's sustainable. And Brannan says people like the idea of eating a fruit that doesn't have to be flown in from half-way around the world. Plus, he says, it has a fascinating history.

BRANNAN: There's the story that when Lewis and Clark were working their way across the United States, they survived on the pawpaw, so you know, promoting it as this all-American crop, native American fruit - it's a tropical fruit, but it grows here in our temperate climate. These types of things make it very, very interesting.

AUBREY: Now, for a fruit to be a commercial success it needs certain qualities. And here, well, the pawpaw needs some work. For instance, it doesn't ship well because it's pretty fragile. And it's got big seeds, which people don't like. And the season is very short.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Pickin' up pawpaws, put it in your basket, pickin' up pawpaws put them in your basket...

AUBREY: But at a pawpaw festival earlier this month in Ohio, people were showing off, at least one way of extending the pawpaw season. They make pulp from the fruit that can be canned and frozen. And even use it to make beer. Garin Wright of the Buckeye Brewing Company in Cleveland wasn't convinced the taste of the pawpaw would come through in his brew, but it did.

GARIN WRIGHT: I really think that I got freshness out of that pulp that you can really smell and taste in the beer I made, so it's awesome.

AUBREY: This has become an annual festival. Six-thousand people turned out this year to celebrate the pawpaw. There were tastings, baking demonstrations, and a huge cook-off moderated by Michelle Wasserman.

MICHELLE WASSERMAN: Second place - for pawpaw mango salsa.

AUBREY: And there were lots of local vendors too.

CHRIS CHMIEL: Pawpaw smoothies, pawpaw guacamole...

AUBREY: Chris Chmiel is the festival organizer. And he says the biggest hit...

CHMIEL: The pawpaw ice-cream is incredible.

AUBREY: The fresh pawpaw season is about over for this year. But you may still be able to find some ice cream or sorbet. Some adventurous chefs are beginning to play around with the pawpaw, and they say people do seem eager to give America's own homegrown mango a try.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

STEVE INSKEEP, host: OK, so Allison set up little a pawpaw stand outside the NPR studios and actually got me to try the pawpaw.

GREENE: I tried it too, Steve, and I'm not part of the pawpaw craze. I thought it was kind of nasty.

INSKEEP: Sorry to hear that. I liked it, I enjoyed it, although apparently the seeds can make you sick. Watch our reactions at

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.