Could the pawpaw heal America?
America’s edible avant-garde spotlights Appalachia every fall.
Though under the radar, the humble pawpaw has become a symbol of the region. Festivals have spread throughout its range. Organizers share the gospel about this odd fruit, dull green on the outside and pale-to-golden-yellow on the inside, its custard-flesh pitted with large seeds.
The pawpaw is roughly the size of a pear; connoisseurs describe its taste as a mango-banana combination. It is difficult or impossible to ship; often, when the fruit falls from branch to ground, its thin skin breaks.
Pawpaw trees need to grow together in patches to pollinate; solitary ones rarely fruit. They’re more likely to be found on shady hillsides; in their brief harvesting window in late September and early October, hikers can smell them from about a hundred yards away if they’re lucky.
The pawpaw only rarely appears at the farmers market. To taste the fruit, there are two options: go to a festival or forage. The difficulty in finding it is part of the appeal. The rarity drives pawpaw prices to $15/pound; fans make specialty items like pawpaw jam, ice cream, beer, and cookies.
“Some of it is just the fact that you can’t buy it at the store,” Jo Jorgensen, the Libertarian Party’s 2020 presidential candidate and a gardener with an interest in the pawpaw, said. “It’s interesting that, of course, people want what they can’t have, they want what’s rare. If they work for something, they’re going to like it more.” Jorgensen herself is growing pawpaw trees at home in South Carolina.
“There’s like a Venn diagram of things that are kind of cool and that people have an interest in right now, and the pawpaw is kind of at the center of that,” Rebecca Minnick, executive director of the Louisville Nature Center in Kentucky, said. “Native plants, traditional regional foods, Appalachian food—things that are weird.”
The most American of fruits now has its moment to shine. The gospel of the pawpaw spreads through festivals, and crowds are growing. The biggest—the Ohio Pawpaw Festival outside Athens, an established tradition for a quarter-century—regularly pulls in 8,000 people.
“Back in 2015, things started going up, things started blowing up, getting really big for us,” said Chris Chmiel, co-owner of Integration Acres and founder of the Ohio Pawpaw Festival. “I would say that there appears to be a lot of pawpaw festivals now sprouting up all over the place.”
“The local pride thing is sort of natural,” Chmiel added. “The local celebration of something that’s like this, it seems to be the natural sort of progression.”
The York County Pawpaw Festival in Pennsylvania hits about 2,000 visitors every year, up from 500 five years ago. In Louisville, lightning struck in the first year of the Nature Center’s festival. “It was by far the biggest event we ever had here, we had about 1,500 people…that was huge for us,” Minnick said.
Beyond selling some pawpaw-related products to one another, festival organizers don’t interact much. Some festivals make the pawpaw the sole star of the show—in Ohio, you’ll spot someone in a pawpaw costume ambling around—while others focus on broader conservation concerns. Some may just look like any other community event with in-season fruit for sale.
A handful of festivals that started in 2019 appear to have fallen victim to Covid, like so many aspects of civil society, before they could become annual events, but longer-standing ones saw a post-pandemic boost.
At the 19th annual York County Pawpaw Festival, the orchardist Dick Bono led a crowd on a tour of his cultivated pawpaw patch.
“This tree had good parents,” Bono said, running his fingers over a long, narrow leaf. “This tree surprised me.”
Wild trees pollinate each other, but their tastes vary. Finding the right ones to cultivate is an art.
“To pick a pawpaw is kind of a judgment call…. All kinds of things can go wrong,” he said.
Originally from the Bronx, Bono was crucial in growing the pawpaw’s profile around York. An architect by trade, he has been active in farmland preservation and planning issues with the goal of building “a more interesting suburb” with mixed-use density. He and his wife Judy held a pawpaw tasting at a local restaurant in 2004, which was the genesis of the festival.
“This is what I’m doing in my retirement—this, and teaching a course on nuclear power,” Bono said. “My life is kind of an adventure.”
Those who know about pawpaws are passionate, and where there’s passion, there’s a market. Farmers, arborists, cultivators, and biologists are working to breed commercially viable pawpaws to bring to market.
One group, Project Pawpaw, works to develop the fruit with research and selective breeding and to expand the scope of this “cool fruit with a lot of potential” that’s “one step away from domestication,” the founder Adam D’Angelo said.
D’Angelo has toured several states, hitting pawpaw festivals and fundraising to develop an orchard in southern New Jersey. Fresh pawpaws could expand into more farmers markets, while frozen pulp could be distributed at an even broader scale.
“The goal is to give small farmers tools: we want them to be able to have a high-value, low-input crop that improves their economic viability, and we want to give community members access to nutritious, delicious fruit that’s grown down the road instead of across the world,” D’Angelo said.
For viability, though, the public may need a massive education program.
At the fourth annual Harford County Pawpaw Celebration in Bel Air, Maryland, an hour north of Baltimore, a middle-aged visitor said that he had never heard of the fruit despite living in the area for a half-century.
Those comments are routine. Unless someone is an overeager local culture type, works with the land, or was taught by rural grandparents, they’ve probably never encountered a pawpaw. The lack of knowledge is a reflection of the culture’s broader separation from nature.
“I remember being taught: ‘you never eat anything [in the wild]’ as opposed to ‘here are the berries that are safe to eat, here are the berries that are poisonous,’” Minnick said. “Which is really sad when you think about all those delicious things that you can forage. I am a mushroom forager and people think I am completely insane.”
Those without a connection can also forge one online.
Rachel Davis, a hiker from Dayton, Ohio, read a blog post about pawpaws and made it her mission to find some on a recent hike. She and her friend spotted a patch and shook the trees to gather a few to try right on the trail.
“It’s pretty dang cool to find new things about Ohio to love and appreciate,” she said.
“A lot of people don’t understand what’s in their backyard,” Scott McDaniel, executive director and founder of the Susquehannock Wildlife Society, said. The SWS hosted the Harford County festival with Broom’s Bloom Dairy, a local farm.
“Flag isn’t only heritage—wildlife is too,” McDaniel said. “They’re part of our community and we want to celebrate them.”
Maryland has lost creatures like the hellbender salamander from the Susquehanna River and the Maryland darter fish; the Society works to “keep the common common,” he said, making sure that still-abundant critters don’t disappear.
“Part of this is kind of a patriotism that this is the largest Indigenous fruit—you have the national bird, the flag—well, this is our fruit,” Jorgensen said. “It’s something to be proud of because it’s something that comes from here.”
The local patriotism on display at pawpaw festivals offers the potential for bridging mere partisan politics.
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“People in the community, they’ll say it’s a hippie fest, but that’s not really what this is about,” Chmiel, the Ohio festival founder, said. “It’s about economics, really, and bringing people into our community, and it’s supporting our local businesses.”
Chmiel says conservatives are rarely seen at the Ohio festival “because of some weird political B.S., frankly.” Yet he adds: “I really like having a broad umbrella.”
To renew the traditions of the past and give future Americans pride in their country, the pawpaw’s popularity gives a template. Americans don’t lack reasons to love the land—maybe, they lack the gumption and connection to what’s beyond their front door.