Time to hunt for pawpaws

Prime Pawpaw Pickin’

I walked up to a pawpaw tree the other day and gave it a shake. The earthy plunk of two distinctly large and tropical looking fruits at my feet told me that pawpaw season had begun. The ripeness of the fruit was quickly verified as my wife and I dug in and enjoyed a vanilla-banana-mango custardy rush of sweet carbohydrates that only nature could conjure. This happened on September 7, early for pawpaws in our region, but if they fall from the tree with a gentle shake, the game is on. So now through the end of the month is your chance to get out there and enjoy this bounty for yourselves.

Despite its tropical appearance the pawpaw (often spelled ‘paw paw’, with a space) tree has a huge native range within the United States and can be found as far north as New York. It is small to medium-sized and often situated in the forest understory, making it quite accessible although the fruit is usually formed high in the tree. The fruit is on the big side (up to 6 inches long) but their color and location make them tricky to spot. This time of year the easiest way to find a pawpaw is to look for the leaves. They are simple and nondescript but quite large (picture the size and shape of a magnolia leaf).

In recent years the pawpaw’s shade tolerant and deer resistant traits have allowed it to flourish and expand beyond traditionally known habitats. Some refer to the tree as a new native weed but more often people realize that pawpaw in the lower canopy beats the non-native alternatives that provide limited benefits and further displace native vegetation. My point? Pawpaws are out there in abundance and they are waiting for you.

If the wild hunt is not for you, a commercial market is slowly developing and you may find pawpaw fruit or pawpaw products (ice cream, pie, salsa) at specialty markets or restaurants. It is a delicate fruit with a short growing season so will require the effort of pawpaw enthusiasts to find ways to make it more available to the masses. One such enthusiast and expert is Neal Peterson of Peterson Pawpaws (www.petersonpawpaws.com) who has developed several pawpaw tree varieties that produce reliable, high-quality fruit. He is based in Harpers Ferry but has become known nation-wide and is working on building an international market for this distinctive delecacy. Some of his trees are available for purchase from specialty nurseries in the region so why not grow your own?

Happy pawpaw hunting.

Shawn Walker is a consulting arborist and owner of Trees 101, based in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. (www.trees101.net)