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The resurgence of a long-forgotten American fruit

An ancient fruit is growing wild but largely forgotten across large swaths of North America. However, a group of foodies, farmers, and scientists are working hard to change that.

“What happened to sweet little Suzie? What happened to sweet little Suzie? What happened to sweet little Suzie?” The traditional folk song inquires. “Way over there in the pawpaw patch.”

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Suzie appears to know more about pawpaws than most. The largest native edible tree fruit in North America grows wild in 26 US states, including Texas, Ohio, West Virginia, New York, and Michigan, as well as in Ontario, Canada. Despite this, most people have never heard of it.

This is because pawpaws have never been widely distributed. Commercial farmers have long avoided them because they require a special growing environment of low, wet areas and spoil within a few days of harvest -As a result, you won’t find the yellow-green fruit next to the grapes at the supermarket. Nonetheless, a pawpaw fan community spanning the United States – from festival organisers and chefs to scientists and independent farmers – is spreading the love for this forgotten fruit, and they want you to join them.

“They’re so tasty,” Michael Judd, author of For the Love of Paw Paws: A Mini Manual for Growing and Caring for Paw Paws – From Seed to Table, said. During the harvest season (usually a few weeks in late summer or early autumn), his diet consists primarily of pawpaws plucked from the branch. “It’s a nutrient-rich superfood,” he added, listing the pawpaw’s many benefits, which include antioxidants, all of the amino acids, magnesium, copper, zinc, iron, potassium, phosphorus, and vitamin C.

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To help spread the word, Judd will host his seventh annual pawpaw festival on his farm in Frederick, Maryland, this September, which will include tastings, jam making, pawpaw ice cream, music, lectures, and more.

Since then, an even larger festival in Ohio has drawn crowds. “We had close to 10,000 visitors last year,” said Chris Chmiel, co-owner of Integration Acres in Albany, Ohio, where he grows pawpaws, ships pawpaw products, and assists with the village’s annual festival. “People come every year, and for many, it has become a family tradition. A pawpaw cook-off, best pawpaw competition, and pawpaw eating competition are also held. The pawpaw beer was a huge hit at the festival!”

As a college student, Chmiel discovered the pawpaw, which influenced the course of his studies and his career in sustainable agriculture. He even has the fruit tattooed on his arm. “It’s a tropical fruit growing right here in Appalachia… it’s kind of the king of the native plants around here,” he explained in a TEDx Talk in 2018.

Pawpaw is related to custard apple, cherimoya, sweetsop, soursop, and ylang-ylang. It’s a subtropical fruit that migrated north from Central America, and it’s unique in that it’s the only member of the family that isn’t restricted to the tropics.

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Pawpaw fossils were discovered in what is now Colorado during the Miocene Epoch, approximately 23 to 5.3 million years ago. The climate has warmed over time, extending the range of tropical areas north and, by extension, the pawpaw. Furthermore, scientists believe that megafauna such as mastodons, mammoths, and sloths, as well as sabre-toothed cats and giant beavers, dispersed pawpaws northward.

There is evidence that humans also contributed to pawpaw dispersal. “Natives in the eastern half of the country have always used pawpaws,” said Dr. Devon Mihesuah, a Choctaw Nation citizen and Cora Lee Beers Price professor of International Cultural Understanding at the University of Kansas. “According to legend, the Iroquois mashed pawpaws and formed the flesh into cakes before drying them in the sun. They were used as a travel food or mixed into cornbread with water.”

Native Americans were cultivating it east of the Mississippi River in 1541, according to Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto. In 1785, George Washington wrote in his diary, “Planted all my cedars, pawpaw, and two honey locust trees.” (Though no historical evidence exists, it is said that chilled pawpaw was Washington’s favourite dessert.) When Thomas Jefferson was minister to France in 1786, he had pawpaw seeds and plants shipped from Virginia to European friends. Lewis and Clark’s journal entry from 18 September 1806 stated that the men were “completely out of provisions” but “appear perfectly contented,” living “very well on the pappaws.”

The texture of the fruit has been compared to custard, and the flavour is described as “a blend of banana and mango.” “Depending on the cultivar, it has undertones of vanilla, caramel, pineapple, coconut, and melon,” said Sheri Crabtree, a horticulture and research extension associate at Kentucky State University’s pawpaw research programme.

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Many experts agree that the mango-shaped orbs – yellow-green on the outside with gold-orange flesh, 7 to 13cm long with a weight of up to half a kilogramme – are best enjoyed hand-picked from the tree. However, they are currently nearly impossible to find in a local grocery store; instead, farmers sell the fresh fruit or its frozen pulp directly to consumers online or at local farmer’s markets. Nurseries also sell pawpaw trees.

Scientists, on the other hand, are hard at work learning more about the pawpaw and devising ways to make it more economically viable. Iowa State University is working to create a pawpaw variety with a longer shelf life and larger fruit with fewer seeds.

Kentucky State University also has a pawpaw programme. “We’re interested in pawpaw from an ecological standpoint because it’s a native plant that’s losing habitat, and from a horticultural standpoint because it’s a unique high-value fruit crop that can be grown sustainably because it’s well suited to the climate,” Crabtree said. She noted that awareness of the fruit has grown over the last 20 years, owing to the shift toward sustainable and local food production and the Slow Food movement. Some of this interest stems from efforts to honour indigenous foods. “Tribes are attempting to protect and revitalise their traditional food sources, and pawpaws are an important part,” Mihesuah said.

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