Pawpaws: The Sweet, Succulent Fruit You've Never Heard Of

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia Commons

Cross a banana with a mango, and add a custard-like texture, a mottled green flesh, and a bean-like shape.  No, it’s not a new breed of Frankenstein Fruit concocted by government scientists. It’s the humble pawpaw, a large, tropical fruit that’s native to America, yet fell into obscurity once grocery stores replaced our need to forage for food.

Author Andy Moore tried his first pawpaw at the annual Ohio Pawpaw Festival. He had never heard of the pawpaw, and was surprised to discover they grow in 26 states and are still enjoyed in many rural parts of the country. Moore’s curiosity eventually, uh, ripened into a book, Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit. The work explores the history, culture, and origins behind the curiously-named wild treat.

Thanks to their relative obscurity, it’s hard to believe that pawpaw trees are actually the most widespread edible fruit trees indigenous to North America. They also have a long, illustrious history. According to NPR, Thomas Jefferson had pawpaw trees at Monticello, and shipped seeds over to France. Lewis and Clark snacked on pawpaws when they ran low on food. And in 2009, the pawpaw was declared the state fruit of Ohio.  

As Moore tells Paste magazine, pawpaws grow in states ranging from Oklahoma to Maryland, and are cultivated in Oregon, California, the upper Midwest, and New England. In the wild, pawpaws are typically found in shady, moist areas near rivers or streams. One place where you’re unlikely find pawpaws, however, is a grocery store. They have a short shelf life, plus farmers didn’t make a serious attempt to cultivate and domesticate the humble pawpaw until the 1970s.

Pawpaws are three to six inches long, with yellow flesh and dark brown seeds. They’re a versatile fruit, and can be baked into pies, frozen into ice cream, and blended into puddings and panna cottas. However, Moore tells Garden & Gun that he likes to simply slice them in half and scoop out the pulp—a fitting way to enjoy the sweet, sun-warmed flesh in full.