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Home Features The forgotten native fruit of the Cumberlands

The forgotten native fruit of the Cumberlands

To what lengths would you go for a piece of fruit?

As I nursed a sore knee — bruised when I slipped and banged it on a rock — I recalled being a kid and risking a spanking to swipe an apple. But I’m not a kid anymore, and I work so that I can afford to buy an apple if I decide I want one. I wasn’t yet out of earshot of the parking lot at Station Camp in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area when I slipped and busted my knee, and I halfway debated turning back and abandoning my quest.

But then I decided to be honest with myself: It wasn’t the fruit I was after so much as the adventure in finding it. 

I was headed to the rim of the BSF river gorge, where I knew a small grove of pawpaw trees stood among a maze of jumbled boulders overlooking the river some 500 vertical feet below. The way up wasn’t easy, and I knew I might be too late; when the pawpaws ripen, humans who seek them out are in competition with a number of wild species that value the large fruits just as much as our ancestors did.

The pawpaw is one of the most carefully hidden secrets of the Appalachian backwoods. With time, as we’ve turned the forests into subdivisions and planted our own fruit trees — like apple, peach and pear — we’ve forgotten this naturally-growing fruit that sustained our forefathers for so many years.

Pawpaw trees aren’t especially common in Scott County, but they aren’t especially uncommon, either. Those who know where to look will find them about this time every year. The pawpaws ripen and are ready for eating around late August or early September. 

The largest edible fruit indigenous to the United States, the pawpaw was documented by Hernando de Soto as he led his Spanish expedition to North America in the mid 16th century. De Soto found that the Indians were cultivating the fruit. 

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Hundreds of years later, the pawpaw had found favor with America’s founding fathers. Chilled pawpaws are said to have been the favorite dessert of George Washington, and Thomas Jeffers planted a grove of pawpaw trees at his Monticello estate. Members of the Lewis & Clark expedition had subsided on the pawpaw as they journeyed through new territory, and frontier settlers often found that the native pawpaw was the only fresh fruit available to them.

So what happened? That’s the mystery that lacks an answer. According to the Christian Science Monitor, the pawpaw disappeared from the American consciousness around World War I. For the next half-century, the fruit wasn’t written about. But in the mid 1970s, a geneticist named Neal Peterson picked one up off the ground and bit into it. 

“It was very sweet — very fruity, floral — very enticing. Kind of ethereal,” the magazine quoted Peterson as saying. “It sparked my imagination, and I had to find out why this delicious fruit was not in grocery stores.” 

The pawpaw tree grows in floodplains and shady bottomlands, often growing in groves. You don’t typically find them in old-growth forests or on ridgetops, which made my quest a little unusual to start with. I would’ve been more likely to find pawpaws much closer to the river, but I just happened to stumble across the fruit in this particular location while hiking off-trail years ago. Every year I return, about the time pawpaws should be ripening in early fall, to see if I can beat the bears and the other critters to them. I usually can’t.

The fruit of the pawpaw is soft — too soft to dice, in fact, given it a kind of custard quality. Its flavor has been described as being like that of a banana, a mango, even cantaloupe and pineapple. That’s a wide range of fruits but they all have one thing in common: they’re tropical, which makes the pawpaw seem quite out of place on the Cumberland Plateau. A ripe pawpaw even resembles a mango once it is cut open; its fleshy middle is bright yellow. 

So why won’t you find the pawpaw in supermarkets? Their short shelf life isn’t conducive to commercial retail. In fact, they begin to ferment only a day or two after they leave the branch, and they bruise easily. They’ll keep for a week or so in the refrigerator, but as any grocer can tell you, no shopper is going to purchased bruised and ugly fruits, and that is what becomes of the pawpaw.

But for those who do pick it up and take a bite — being careful to spit out the lima bean-shaped seeds, which are poisonous and will make you sick — the pawpaw has an exotic taste that makes many forage for the fruits year after year. The aftertaste isn’t the most enticing part of the fruit, and is said to have contributed to the pawpaw’s non-commercial status, but it isn’t altogether unpleasant, either.

The pawpaw is an interesting fruit species. Its leaves have a somewhat offensive odor when torn, somewhat similar to a green bell pepper. Its flowers do not produce an odor that attracts bees, making blow flies and carrion beetles the chief pollinators of the fruit. In fact, some orchard owners hang road kill from the branches during the blooming season to attract blow flies and encourage pollination.

The acetogenins that make the leaves and flowers of the pawpaw tree stink can actually be used to make organic insecticide. However, the larvae of the zebra swallowtail butterfly feed exclusively on the leaves of the pawpaw tree . . . and trace amounts of the acetogenins remain in the butterfly throughout its life, saving it from being eaten by birds and other predators, which find the taste of the butterfly unpalatable.

The pawpaw fruit is a favorite of many animals, including bears, squirrels, foxes and possums. That means when the fruits start to drop in late August and early September, the critters are going to show up quick. And if you’re going to beat them to the tree, you’d better be on your game.

This story is the September 2018 installment of Our Back Yard, presented by First National Bank of Oneida on the first week of each month as part of the Independent Herald’s Back Yard Features series. A print version of this article can be found on Page C8 of the September 6, 2018 edition of the Independent Herald.

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Contact the Independent Herald at newsroom@ihoneida.com. Follow us on Twitter, @indherald.
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