Pickin’ Up PawPaws … Put ‘em in Your Pocket
By Andrew Moore
Chelsea Green Publishing, July 2015, 296 pages, $26
Review by N.R. Mallery
Pawpaw? What’s a pawpaw? Do you remember singing “Pickin’ up paw paws, put ‘em in your pocket … way down yonder in the pawpaw patch” when you were a child? Did you ever stop to wonder what a pawpaw was? Most of us probably never did, let alone actually eat one. It turns out that the pawpaw is actually a unique fruit that grows wild in twenty-six states and sustained Native Americans, European explorers, presidents and African Americans in the past.
There are many reasons why you may not be familiar with them – in part because they were nearly forgotten until the more recent interest in reviving this mysterious fruit. The pawpaw, Asimina triloba, is the largest of all edible fruits native to the United States. In the forward, Michael W. Twitty describes the fruit as “a tropical tree in a temperate landscape that thrives in the understory on the forest edge or in open fields.” He later states, “No fruit has captured the imagination of the forager community in the past twenty years like the pawpaw.”
Even so, you may wonder what they look like, taste like, where do they grow and why you do not see them in the market, and do they grow here in the northeast? The best answers are in the book, of course.
There are various opinions on the taste of this fruit – you either love it or hate it, which may be dependent on the variety and ripeness. The author’s quest to find and taste one eventually led him to Ohio where he finally found that first pawpaw by what he described as a sweet, tropical aroma in a grove of the uncommon trees. When he reached to touch the fruit, it fell gently right into his hand. Moore said, “it looked like an expensive import on a grocery shelf, not something you could pick for free.” There were three more on the ground, of various sizes and shapes. Squeezing the pulp into his mouth, the author’s description was that he “sensed first the texture – like custard, smooth, and delicate – the flavor was truly tropical, with hints of vanilla, caramel, and mango … another one tasted like melon. Both were unlike anything I’d eaten before.” He was shocked that he had only recently heard about the pawpaw.
Another reason many have not heard about pawpaws is because they only ripen in September with just a few days to eat them after being picked or when they fall from the tree. This alone makes marketing them difficult.
Moore’s first experience led to many more to quench the thirst he had to find the answers of how this wonderful fruit was, it seems, forgotten. Thus, the book covers the history of pawpaws, and the reasons why so many of us only have the memory of pawpaws as words in a children’s song. It also covers the importance of its revival, and how many folks and groups are helping to make it happen.
Moore writes that pawpaws are a poster child for American permaculture (permanent agriculture – a sustainable design system modeled on naturally occurring ecosystems). The pawpaw plant is resistant to the ravages of most pests, to start with. The founder of the famous Ohio Pawpaw Festival and owner of Chmiel’s Integration Acres believes they are a model of a permaculture system where pawpaws are a large component to make it all work together. Since most animals will not eat them, they can be efficiently integrated with grazing farm animals, including goats and pigs or wildlife such as deer. The farm animals’ manure, in turn provide nutrients for the trees and attract pollinators as well. There are many examples of how farmers are working with them that will certainly lead to the time when most will know just what a pawpaw is.
But the taste is not all that makes this fruit unique. Pawpaws are highly nutritious and offer many health benefits that scientists have been studying for decades and have shown that the chemical compounds in Asimina triloba might be the strongest cancer-fighting tool yet discovered, for instance.
I picked up the book out of curiosity, and in my quest for my own evolving permaculture journey with sustainability and am left with a deep desire now to find some pawpaw trees to establish near my home in Vermont. I plan to start this fall which is a great time to plant trees. I hear of some that are growing in Brattleboro, which is 90 miles south of my home. If climate change continues to bring the mild winters like last year, I am hopeful to be pickin’ up pawpaws and putting them in my own pockets in the near future.