Pledges for pawpaw season
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.
A pawpaw tree at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.