The Pawpaw: Foraging For America's Forgotten Fruit
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Allison Aubrey
Thursday, September 29, 2011 at 1:25 AM
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The pawpaw is a tropical-type fruit native to North America with a long and almost forgotten history. Thomas Jefferson once prized it, and now scientists are looking at whether the pawpaw can claim some health benefits, along with cache.

   

So what the heck is a pawpaw?

Recently, I heard about a secret snack. Kayakers who paddle the waters near Washington, D.C., told me about a mango-like fruit that grows along the banks of the Potomac - a speckled and homely skin that hides a tasty treat.

A tropical-like fruit here, really? Yep. It's the only temperate member of a tropical family of trees. You can't buy the pawpaw in stores, so for years, the only way to eat them was straight from the tree.

I was intrigued. So I decided to hunt for a pawpaw myself.

D.C. nature guide Matt Cohen showed me how to find them.

We took the Billy Goat Trail on the Maryland side of the Potomac River. "Wow," was the first word out of my mouth when I tasted one we found on our hike. It's sort of mango-meets-the-banana ... with a little hint of melon.

Although you may not have heard of it, the pawpaw has quite a history. Thomas Jefferson had pawpaws at Monticello. And when he was minister to France in 1786, he had pawpaw seeds shipped over to friends there. He probably wanted to impress his friends with something exotic from America.

Lewis and Clark wrote in their journals that they were quite fond of the pawpaw. At one point during their expedition in 1806, they relied on pawpaws when other provisions ran low. And from Michigan to West Virginia, people have even named towns and lakes after the pawpaw.

But the pawpaw has only recently been commercialized. That's one reason you don't see it in the grocery store. So far, there are just a few orchards selling to farmers' markets. This progress is largely thanks to the work of a plant scientist named Neal Peterson.

He's spent the last 35 years breeding the pawpaw to make it look and taste more like a fruit we'd buy. He's selected and grown varieties that are bigger, with more flesh.

Peterson's a plant scientist. And 35 years ago he had a eureka moment after tasting his first wild papaw.

"It was just a revelation," he says. Peterson thought that the pawpaw was every bit the rival of a perfect peach or apple — fruits that have had thousands of years of breeding.

Why hadn't someone done this with the pawpaw? "I could just instantly make that leap of imagination," he says.

And some three decades later, he's got a lot to show for it. His paw paws are being grown in a few orchards and sold at farmers markets.

And now it's moving beyond novelty. A food scientist at Ohio University, Rob Brannan, is interested in studying the nutrients in the pawpaw. So far, he's published one study that found the antioxidant count in the fruit to be pretty high.

"It's about the same as a cranberry" or a cherry, Brannan says.

If scientists could put a "health halo" over the pawpaw, Brannan says, it would give the fruit a commercial boost. It's happened before. Pomegranate juice, anyone?

"Yum, wonderful flavor," Joan Foster said after tasting her first pawpaw at the Olney Farm Market recently. She's been waiting a long time to try one. They're only available a few weeks out of the year — and this year's pawpaw season is just about over.

So if you're intrigued, come back again tomorrow for a few tips on where you can find pawpaw beer, pawpaw sorbet ... and pawpaw recipes. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]



This article is filed in: Food, Around the Nation, Environment, Home Page Top Stories, News

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