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Pawpaws: A Baltimore Summer Tradition

Over the last decade, wild foods have recaptured the American imagination. Foraged goods have reached a popularity unseen since the 1970’s. Arguably, no fruit has captured this spirit more than the pawpaw. Interest in the fruit has prompted coverage in national publications, and in 2015, a book dedicated to the fruit. The pawpaw has an intriguing tropical flavor unlike anything found in deciduous forests. Commonly described as a mix between a mango and a banana with pudding-like texture, it lends itself to all kinds of preparations. Cooked into bread or chilled into ice cream, pawpaws are a delicious treat that can be found along many of Maryland’s waterways.

 

In Baltimore, the pawpaw can be found both inside and outside of city limits. Productive stands can be found in Gwynns Falls/Leakin park and all along the Gunpowder river. However, the fruit can be found all throughout the mid-Atlantic and beyond. The pawpaw belt stretches from west Texas north to Michigan and across to the east coast. This enormous range suggests Indigenous peoples brought seeds on their travels, planting pawpaws along the way. Likely, they planted seeds of the best fruits, effectively breeding improved varieties as they moved across the country.  As the United States was colonized, Native Americans taught colonists about the fruit. Both English and French explorers have written about the pawpaw. According to culinary historian Michael Twitty, enslaved Africans recognized the fruit due to its similarity to custard apples. Pawpaw stands still exist near former slave dwellings, suggesting they were foraged and consumed by enslaved peoples. Pawpaws were likely of great importance to historic populations of its’ native range.

 

In recent years, the pawpaw has been undergoing a resurgence of popularity. In large part due to the work of plant breeder Neal Peterson. Peterson began experimenting with pawpaw trees on University of Maryland land in Wye, Maryland in 1988. Since then he has introduced many commercial cultivars which have been important in encouraging the growth of a commercial industry. Many such as the Shenandoah, Susquehanna and Rappahannock bear names familiar to inhabitants of our mid-Atlantic region. The fruit is now being considered for its future potential as a cash-crop throughout its range. Now land-grant universities such as Kentucky State University are developing research to bring the pawpaw to the forefront. Identified for its unique tropical flavor and nutritional content it has the potential to become a staple in the American diet.

 

Pawpaws may not be something many Baltimoreans grew up eating, it is a hidden gem of our region. Easy to find and packed with nutrition, it may not be long before it is Baltimore’s newest summer tradition.

Join our meet-up group to get involved with helping us to plant, steward, and harvest pawpaws and other fall fruits around Baltimore.

Further Reading:

  1. Allison Aubrey and Dan Charles, “Time To Pursue The Pawpaw, America’s Fleeting Fall Fruit,” NPR, October 10, 2015, http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/10/10/447244976/time-to-pursue-the-pawpaw-americas-fleeting-fall-fruit
  2. Sadie Dingfelder, “Where to Find Pawpaws, North America’s Largest Edible Native Fruit,” Washington Post, October 3, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/express/wp/2014/10/03/where-to-find-pawpaws-north-americas-largest-edible-native-fruit/?utm_term=.d4e1c30314ea
  3. Andrew Moore, Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit (White River Junction: Chelsea Green, 2015)
  4. “Pawpaw Program,” Kentucky State University Cooperative Extension, accessed July 25, 2017, http://www.pawpaw.kysu.edu/

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