(Editor’s Note: The following is excerpted from a September, 2010 column I wrote for the Times-Dispatch. If anything, the paw paw harvest I’m seeing so far this year is even better.)
My search for the forgotten fruit begins just after dawn, but I see immediately that I’m late. Pieces of pulp and half-eaten remains litter the trail: squirrels, again. Say what you will about them: Curse them. Call them names when they ravage the garden. They’re nothing if not industrious.
I scouted this place the day before, and a few examples of North America’s largest edible, indigenous fruit hung just overhead, green and perfect for the picking. I’ll pick them tomorrow morning, I thought, and let them ripen at home, knowing how quickly it happens. Then I’ll be treated to a feast easily accessible to every Richmonder, but one very few partake in.
The squirrels had other ideas. They weren’t about to let an easy meal go to waste. No matter, though. The banks of the James River where I’m walking now are lousy with the fruit, borne on trees with low-hanging branches, just begging to be plucked.
If you haven’t guessed by now, my quarry is the paw paw, or technically, the fruit of the paw paw tree, an understory stalwart from Virginia to Oklahoma to Canada.
Over the years I’ve found that more people in these parts know the song about paw paws than can recognize the tree or have eaten the fruit. That’s a shame for two reasons: 1) The song is really quite terrible and 2) the paw paw is absolutely delicious.
“Where, oh where, is dear little Danny…? Way down yonder in the paw paw patch. Come on girls, let’s go find him, way down yonder in the paw paw patch…Pickin’ up paw paws, put ‘em in your pocket, way down yonder in the paw paw patch.”
And on and on it goes with a different kid’s name each time. We get it: Jimmy, Nellie, Danny, Mitsy, Muffy, Jojo – they’re all down in the paw paw patch gorging themselves. It’s a dreadful, but instructive, little tune. There are no songs about finding kids in the broccoli or asparagus patch. They’re in the paw paw patch because they realize how darn tasty the fruit is.
You’ll hear paw paws called prairie bananas, West Virginia bananas, Virginia bananas, Hoosier bananas, Ozark bananas, Michigan bananas and poor man’s bananas but the most apt name is “banangos.” Paw paws taste like a cross between a mango and a banana.
Sounds good, right? Yet I’ve never seen another person out picking paw paws. Why spend your hard-earned scratch at the grocery store when Mother Nature is giving this fruit away for free? Heck, paw paws can be substituted on a 1:1 equivalency for bananas in most recipes. Doesn’t “paw paw bread” have a nice ring to it?
And they’re thick right now. They must have loved this rainy summer. But they won’t be in for long. Paw paw season is short and sweet.
So I press on up the bank looking for paw paws the squirrels haven’t yet plundered. It doesn’t take long to find them. The paw paw tree isn’t very picky about habitat. It’s found anywhere from well-drained, fertile bottomland to hilly uplands. I haven’t scouted all of Richmond’s parks, but the banks of the James are a good place to start looking for them.
I spy one just out of my reach, but the paw paw tree isn’t very thick – it’s more of a sapling – so I bend it down and pick the mostly-green fruit. It’s just starting to ripen. By tomorrow or the next day, it’ll be perfect.
I wonder, turning the fruit over in my hand, about George Washington. His Excellency was known to savor the chilled flesh of a paw paw. Thomas Jefferson planted the trees at Monticello. Diary entries suggest the Lewis and Clark expedition might not have made it very far without the sustenance the paw paw provided.
As I said, it’s a magical fruit: large and succulent, appearing only briefly every year, lauded by famous men, yet barely appreciated in our time. It hangs there beneath the shade of giant oaks and sycamores waiting for someone to come along, pick it from its stalk, slice it open and have a taste.
Only the squirrels oblige.
(Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions about paw paws and where to find them.)