Those who’ve eaten a pawpaw before often say that the creamy, tropical fruit resembles a mix of a mango and a banana, or a mango and an avocado. They often can’t believe that the fruit is native to Appalachia.
“It’s creamy, but you get that tropical fruit taste,” said Katie Wight, a resident of Athens, Ohio, upon eating her first paw-paw. “It’s not really mango, but mango-papaya - that kind of genre.”
To the rest of the country, the pawpaw is little-known. It’s not commercially grown, in part because it’s so tricky to eat - it’s not ripe until it looks rotten on the outside, and ingesting the seeds or the skin causes some to fall ill. But the Appalachian fruit is showing potential.
In Charleston, a locally-owned ice cream shop called Ellens Homemade Ice Cream increased its supply of pawpaw ice cream this fall due to increased demand. And every year, thousands flock to Athens, Ohio, to celebrate the Pawpaw Festival, where they can learn about the pawpaw and buy pawpaw art, saplings and raw pawpaws.
“At my place, a Belgian gentleman comes and buys all my seeds,” said one attendee who traveled from his home in the Netherlands for the eighteenth annual Pawpaw Festival this year. He spoke of the growing market for pawpaws in Europe. “Before that I threw them away but he pays me 15 cents a piece. I ask him (why) and he says he (uses it) for curing cancer.”
According to Andy Moore, a writer who recently published a book called Pawpaw: In Search of America's Forgotten Fruit, pawpaws have been consumed in the United States for generations. Towns are named after the fruit, and folk songs, like “Way Down Yonder in the Pawpaw Patch,” have been written about them.
In the last few years, pawpaws have started to be cultivated on a very small scale. “People are growing them in orchards now, just like you would any other crop, which will hopefully give people more opportunity to taste it and experience it,” Moore said.
Some pawpaw fans hope that pawpaws can be included in the forest farming or agroforestry movement, which means growing and harvesting crops like ramps or pawpaws in the forest that many West Virginians landowners own. Walt Helmick, the West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture, says that they haven’t looked into pawpaws as a commercial fruit yet, even though they are unique to the Appalachian region.
“We need to see what we can do with agriculture in the forest more than we have in years gone by,” Helmick said.