Picture a flavor that combines banana and mango, or imagine a fruit nicknamed custard apple, and what you have in your mind is the pawpaw, a fruit of tropical origin that somehow worked its way well up into North America. First eaten by megafauna like woolly mammoths, pawpaws were later enjoyed by Native Americans and early settlers. Thomas Jefferson had a grove of pawpaw trees at Monticello and considered the possibility of turning them into a cultivated crop, enslaved Africans who collected pawpaws to supplement their diets were reminded of fruits from their homelands, and when Lewis and Clark went on their exploration of western America eating local pawpaws helped them survive when they were low on provisions. So why aren’t pawpaws around today? That’s the thing, they are around. Pawpaw trees still grow wild in 26 states. Most of us have just forgotten about them.
I had almost but not quite forgotten about the pawpaw–I just never knew they were real. When I was growing up we used to belt out a folk song with the refrain “Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch!” but I didn’t realize pawpaws actually existed until not long ago when I was on a birding walk along the edge of the C&O Canal outside Washington DC. The guide pointed out some birds in a pawpaw tree on the other side of the bank, stopping me in my tracks by waking up my atavistic memory of the song and making me feel like Alice in some strange Wonderland created by ghost lyrics.
This book gives the whole fascinating, satisfying scoop on pawpaws, and will be especially interesting to anyone whose interests include plants or food or history or mystery or even wildlife–pawpaw trees are the only larval host of the exotic looking zebra swallowtail butterfly. The author made it his mission to research everything known about pawpaws and he takes readers along as he attends pawpaw festivals, talks to people who remember eating pawpaws as children, harvests fruit with farmers propagating pawpaws for a growing niche market, and searches out pawpaw trees still growing wild right under our noses (one at Jefferson’s Monticello that the tour guides didn’t know existed!) He’s especially interested in finding trees that are descendants of the ones which bore prize winning fruits in the pawpaw contest of 1916, which adds a little suspense to the story.
Engaging and informative, this book is also strikingly beautiful, even when you remove the very attractive dust jacket, because someone made the whimsical but fitting decision to color it like a pawpaw fruit–the outer hardcover is deep green and the inner endpapers are a very bright yellow. The book also includes a map of the American pawpaw belt and 8 pages of color photos.
Photo from Blue Ridge Discovery Center blog