A 2-to-6-inch tropical fruit that’s native to South Carolina generally ripens in early August, but it rarely appears on Charleston restaurant menus, or at local Harris Teeters this time of year. But that doesn’t mean the pawpaw fruit — which loosely resembles a mango with its green exterior — isn’t a prized possession for folks throughout South Carolina.
“The smell of a ripe pawpaw is really heavenly — one of the best smells I’ve smelled in my life,” said Vaughan Spearman, a pawpaw enthusiast who studied wildlife and forestry at the University of Georgia. Nowadays, he’s a stewardship forester for the South Carolina Forestry Commision.
“I discovered that this native species to the United States was being used worldwide as a common fruit for farmers to bring to market, but it was forgotten about here. One thing I was amazed by was that I didn’t learn about them in school.”
The pawpaw fruit, or asimina triloba, grows on a pawpaw tree, and pieces of the fruit usually fall when ripe. But, it’s not as simple as that for folks looking to harvest their own pawpaws, said Spearman, who studied permaculture on his own after graduating college.
In order to grow fruit-producing trees, you’ll need a pawpaw patch, or a cluster of multiple pawpaw trees. By having multiple seedlings (young plants that develop when seeds germinate), the plants are able to cross-pollinate, he said.
“Some plants use that strategy to ensure that they’re not just breeding with themselves constantly. Since [pawpaw trees] are such an old type of tree, they’re pollinated by flies,” Spearman said.
Historically, pawpaws have been utilized in the United States for hundreds of years, according to Andrew Moore’s book, Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit. “Pawpaw seeds and other remnants have been found at archeological sites of the earliest Native Americans,” Moore wrote.
“The theory is that it was moved by the Native Americans up the river systems, so its range was extended,” said Gregory Reighard, professor emeritus and visiting professor of horticulture at Clemson University, adding that you’ll find pawpaws from Florida all the way up to Canada and several places in between. “Even though it’s a tropical family, it’s adapted well.”
The pawpaw was also an important source of nourishment for Black Americans in the 1800s, according to culinary historian Michael W. Twitty, who wrote the foreword in Moore’s book.
“It was the pawpaw, cognate to species known to their ancestors in West Africa, that along with the persimmon, honey locust, and others gave them diversity in a diet built on nutritional monotony, and enabled them to nourish themselves on trails North to freedom,” Twitty wrote.
“For enslaved African Americans, pawpaws were among the wild foods that supplemented meager provisions,” added Moore later in the book.
With its historical importance and sweet, almost caramel-like flavor when ripe — some people say pawpaws taste like a cross between a mango and a banana — why is this native fruit not more widely available in South Carolina? According to Reighard, pawpaws are difficult to ship because of their short shelf life, and growing trees at home can be difficult.
“The roots are very stubby, brittle, and there’s very few root hairs, so it’s difficult for them to get established,” he said.
But, he and Spearman have some tips for folks looking to grow pawpaw-producing trees at home.
Spearman has two pawpaw patches, each of which produce fruit annually. Between the two, there are 15-20 trees, and he estimates 5-10 of them are “productive” — aka pawpaw-producing.
Each pawpaw fruit has 4-10 seeds inside, and Spearman says the best way to establish a new patch is by planting these seeds in the ground 4-6 inches deep. Plant the trees just before winter, and the fruit will ripen in August … 5-6 years later, Spearman said. You’ll know the pawpaws are ripe when they fall from the tree or can be easily picked by pulling lightly.
“Getting those fresh seeds is probably the best plan,” said Spearman, who gives his leftover seeds to friends. “Plant them before winter or keep them in the fridge for at least three months.”
Reighard says pawpaw trees grow best in moist areas with thick vegetation, and he suggests mulching them heavily to help with the heat stress.
“The tree should grow, but I know many people have had failures,” said Reighard, describing what makes pawpaws so unique. “If you compare it to other fruits, it’s a super fruit. It has very high minerals, amino acids, vitamins, and it’s also high in things like iron and copper. It’s really an amazing fruit.”
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