Little-known fruit making a comeback in Virginia

Ag Life

NELSON COUNTY, Va. (WFXR) – Perhaps you’ve never heard of it which means you likely haven’t tried it, but this North American fruit is making a comeback.

It’s called a Pawpaw. It’s a sweet, creamy tropical fruit that was once a common staple for Native Americans and colonial settlers in Virginia. It’s even been rumored to be a favorite of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson which they planted and cultivated at Mount Vernon and Monticello. The pawpaw was first documented in 1540 by a Portuguese explorer who noticed Native Americans eating the fruit.

The pawpaw looks similar to a mango. It’s flesh is a custard-like texture that is not only sweet and delicious to eat as is, but it’s also a common ingredient in things like jams and jellies, pies, tarts, smoothies and ice cream.

Despite the pawpaw’s popularity back then, the fruit had drifted into obscurity – until recently. Popularity of the largest edible fruit native to North America has increased. Pawpaws grow in approximately 26 states, mainly in the eastern part of the country.

George Dean, a farmer in Nelson County, grows it and tells WFXR he’s struggling to not only get a hold of seedlings, but also keeping pace with demand.​

He says you will likely only find pawpaws at a farmer’s market, for a few reasons: they’re only ripe from the end of August through part of September, they’ve got a short shelf life, they have to be picked off the ground, and can take five to six years to grow from a seedling.​

“Well, that’s why we’re almost out of pawpaws right now because people just love them,” he said.​

Dean grows countless mainstays like plums and kiwis at Edible Landscaping, but says the uniqueness of the pawpaw – a relatively unknown fruit until about 10 years ago – has made it a new favorite.​

“And people that walk up here and say ‘what’s a pawpaw?’ I can take them over and have them try one and they have to have a couple and take them home and plant them and tell their friends about them. So they’ve just gained this ‘tag you’re it’ popularity,” he said.​

Dean says Edible Landscaping cross-breeds for things like bigger fruit and smaller seeds, but the pawpaw itself is nothing new.​

“Like you had a plum, some cherries, pawpaws, and persimmons. They were basically the ‘big four’ tree fruits that grew here on the east coast before the Europeans brought the other fruits over,” he said.​

He says – whether in bread, muffins, ice cream, or by itself – the pawpaw’s flavor speaks for itself.​

“So it’s got this custardy, banana mango-ey flavor to it, that’s the best I can describe it. It’s wonderful,” he said.​

Dean tells WFXR pawpaws are mostly grown on a small scale and go for about five bucks a pound.​

Our full interview with George Dean

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