Pledges for pawpaw season

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - BY FRAN­CIS E. PUTZ

With pawpaw season here, I have com­mit­ted to not overindulge in those too-lus­cious fruits. The coun­te­nance of Luna, my fru­giv­o­rous canine com­pan­ion, re­flects no such com­mit­ment to re­straint, but she is a dog, af­ter all, and a yel­low Lab for that mat­ter. In the first pawpaw patch we en­coun­tered in Rock Creek Park, I ate at least a dozen of the su­per-rich fruits. I’m not sure how many she scarfed, but we both suf­fered a bit af­ter­ward.

The taste of paw­paws is of­ten likened to a com­bi­na­tion of man­goes and ba­nanas, with a hint of cit­rus. I’d throw in per­sim­mons for the messi­ness of eat­ing them, and duri­ans for the not-so-sub­tle af­ter­taste. Bears love them. Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton re­port­edly liked his chilled.

I’m not sure whether Paw­pawsaurus ate them back in the Cre­ta­ceous, but I am cer­tain that mastodons and mam­moths and ground sloths and glyptodonts gob­bled them with glee be­fore the megafauna met its demise just a dozen thou­sand years back. The hard black seeds that passed rapidly through the guts of those big, hairy beasts likely found good places to grow in the wakes of their canopy-open­ing frol­ics.

An­other of my pledges for this pawpaw season is that I’m go­ing to be a bet­ter seed dis­perser. At this my Labrador ex­cels be­cause she swal­lows the seeds and passes them in­tact. For my part, I’ll be care­ful where I spit them and will re­turn to the woods the seeds of any fruit I carry home gin­gerly — and cer­tainly not in my pock­ets.

I plan to lengthen my season of pawpaw en­joy­ment this year by freez­ing more, dry­ing some and ex­per­i­ment­ing with the many recipes on the In­ter­net that boil down to us­ing paw­paws in­stead of ripe ba­nanas in cakes, sher­bets and pud­dings.

Paw­paws grow abun­dantly on the Po­tomac River’s flood­plains, not just along the Paw Paw Bends un­der which the Ch­e­sa­peake & Ohio Canal folks tun­neled. Once you get a search image and rec­og­nize their aroma, you’ll no­tice the small, un­der­story trees all over the place — at least where it’s moist and shady. Some peo­ple grow paw­paws com­mer­cially, but I pre­fer my fruit feral.

It might help their sales to ad­ver­tise that paw­paws are high in pro­tein, vi­ta­mins A and C, iron, mag­ne­sium and man­ganese, but it shouldn’t be hard to sell a nat­u­ral cus­tard with wild­wood fla­vors.

I can’t help but think that in ad­di­tion to the fruit’s per­isha­bil­ity, pawpaw mar­ket­ing suf­fers from its name. First of all, some peo­ple mis­take paw­paws for pa­payas, to which they aren’t re­lated. The fruit’s other com­mon names — hill­billy ba­nana and Quaker de­light, and lately, hip­ster ba­nana — some­how lack mar­ket ap­peal. Per­haps some­one should be­stow on this very ex­otic-tast­ing fruit from an oth­er­wise trop­i­cal fam­ily a name that re­flects both.

Mean­while, Luna and I will plan our walks over the next month so as to pass through many pawpaw patches. I should be more sci­en­tific and keep track of the dis­tinc­tive fla­vors of fruits from dif­fer­ent clones and grow­ing un­der dif­fer­ent eco­log­i­cal con­di­tions. Luna most likely has no such in­ten­tions, but, nev­er­the­less, she’s good com­pany. The writer, a pro­fes­sor of ecol­ogy in the Univer­sity of Florida’s bi­ol­ogy de­part­ment, is on a year-long post­ing in the Dis­trict as a Jef­fer­son fel­low at the U.S. Agency for In­ter­na­tional De­vel­op­ment.

SMITH­SO­NIAN MU­SEUM OF NAT­U­RAL HIS­TORY

A pawpaw tree at the Smith­so­nian Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory.

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