“It is said that no habit gets a stronger hold on a man than the pawpaw habit,” Seed World, August 1921.
The gardening magazine writer who penned this observation a century ago clearly understood that pawpaw enthusiasts are devoted fans of this peculiar wild fruit. Yet I suspect he underestimated their level of passion.
What he deemed mere “habit,” I’d call an addiction—a craving obsession to seek out and savor as many pawpaws as possible during their appalling brief season. We pawpaw aficionados are compulsive consumers with only a few brief transitional weeks between summer’s end and autumn’s beginning to get our annual fix.
Last week, I visited a pawpaw patch along the Little Miami. From my home on the Stillwater, it’s a long ways to drive for a strange-looking, yellow-green fruit few folks nowadays recognize and even fewer have tasted.
But love isn’t measured by miles—and I dearly love pawpaws. They are my lifelong favorite wild fruit, an enduring pleasure, and easily one of my top-ten picks among foods of any sort—foraged, store-bought, garden-raised, or concocted by some toque-wearing chef in a fancy restaurant.
Unfortunately, the 80-mile round trip proved in vain when it came to gathering the anticipated supply. Sometime during the last couple of years (I didn’t get to check out the place last fall) the landowner had cut down all but a few of the biggest riverbank sycamores, bush hogged the smaller understory stuff, and used a disc plow to slice and turn under all the lush meadow grass and years of accumulated leaf duff and similar organic materials.
My former pawpaw hotspot was now a dismaying expanse of bare, rutted earth.
Wooden stakes sporting bright red plastic ribbons marked out future development plans closer to the road. The rearward three-acre riverside thicket—including my beloved patch—had doubtless been considered a possible eyesore to those unwary souls who might buy a lot on this occasional floodplain and choose to build their high-budget homes.
Well, I reminded myself, once I’d gotten over the shock and disappointment, this isn’t the first pawpaw patch you’ve lost to “progress.”
I grew up in a pawpaw-eating family. Mom and Dad both relished the smooth-skinned fruit’s creamy yellow custard-like flesh. So did my grandparents, who lived just up the street. As did my three aunts, who visited weekly. Our foraged pawpaws were always shared around.
Yet family pawpaw jaunts were routine and easy. Dad and Mom knew of at least a dozen nearby patches no more than a few miles from the house. We gathered pawpaws regularly—often collecting a bucket or basket of fat, ripe fruits on our way home after church.
Alas, one after another, those pawpaw patches and the woodlots or and brushy fence-corners which harbored them, succumbed to the bulldozer. Every single patch is now gone.
Pawpaws have big, mahogany-brown seeds—about the size and shape of a lima bean. Over the years, the countless seeds we’d discarded into the compost pile, got moved about by birds and critters, and sometimes germinated. Those which sprouted along the fenceline were allowed to grow into trees which eventually yielded fruit.
As our various local foraging hotspots disappeared, we were spared the calamity of a pawpaw shortfall by those accidental backyard trees. No need to look elsewhere when an abundant supply of sweet, delicious pawpaws awaited just beyond the back door!
Dad passed away in 1983, Mom in 2005. I moved to this cottage on the Stillwater in ’06. Since then, it’s often been a scramble getting my annual pawpaw fix. Weather, schedule, health issues, and ever-creeping development have all played a part.
Pawpaws are an understory tree. They need shade early on in their growth. More importantly, they’re clonal, meaning trees in a patch are genetically identical. Like wild apples, different trees (in this case, different pawpaw patches) produce different tasting fruit—bland, mediocre, tasty. The Little Miami’s pawpaws were superlative!
I do know of a few other good pawpaw patches, but none nearby nor as easily accessible.
One ten-acre dandy is down in the hill-country of Vinton Country—135 miles and almost three hours each way. Another is near Caesar’s Creek Lake, though a mile-plus, no-trail walk-in from the road—exhausting for a semi-geezer since I invariably decide to carry a half-bushel of pawpaws back out.
I guess it’s time to scout, explore, and locate a few new closer-to-home and easier-to-access patches. But I’ll have to hustle. The pawpaw season doesn’t last very long—and a year without pawpaws is simply too awful to consider!
Jim McGuire, a nature columnist, resides in Englewood, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.