The sweet treat can be found around Maryland and has inspired a number of affectionate nicknames over the years, including the “hillbilly mango” and the “poor man’s banana.”
To previous generations, the pawpaw — a greenish-yellow fruit with a custard-like flesh — was an important staple of the North American diet. While public appetite for it seemed to wane for a time, the fruit has experienced something of a renaissance in recent years.
Pawpaws are thankfully abundant across the state, where they tend to ripen by mid-September, to the delight of local chefs, farmers and foragers.
Here’s what you need to know.
What exactly is a pawpaw?
The American pawpaw, or Asimina triloba, is a deciduous tree that tends to grow in moist woods or along banks of streams in many parts of the United States. They can grow up to 35 feet in height and produce clusters of the fruit in autumn, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
The pawpaw will typically darken in color as it matures and eventually drop to the ground where there are a number of critters who snack on it. It can take around four to eight years for its flowering tree to produce fruit.
Experts at the University of Maryland Extension say pawpaws usually grows about 2 to 6 inches in length and may resemble a small, irregular mango. Wild variations tend to weigh about half a pound, while those cultivated in agricultural settings can weigh more than a pound.
People have enjoyed eating the treat for centuries. Author Andrew Moore writes in his book “Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit” that it sustained Native Americans, European explorers, U.S. presidents and enslaved African Americans.
George Washington recorded in 1785 in his diary that he planted pawpaws on the grounds of Mount Vernon, his Virginia home. They’re also found on the property near the Slave Cabin Garden.
Why am I only now hearing about it?
One of the reasons the pawpaw fell out of vogue has to do with how Americans obtain their food. Pawpaws have a particularly short shelf life, lasting just a few days, which makes it difficult for grocery stores to stock them.
In recent years, local cultivators and chefs have helped raise their profile in Maryland, according to Baltimore magazine. And foragers with large TikTok followings have documented their pawpaw cooking adventures for the masses.
How can I get my hands on a pawpaw?
Even as the fruit experiences a resurgence in popularity, finding it may take a little bit of legwork. You’re most likely to encounter them by way of foraging, farmers markets or eateries that specialize in locallysourced foods.
Believe it or not, pawpaw trees can be found in many of Baltimore City’s parks and green spaces, including Gwynns Falls-Leakin, Druid Hill and Patterson parks. Novice foragers can use the Falling Fruit urban harvest map to scope out more precise locations.
If foraging isn’t for you, another viable option is to swing by the Two Boots Farm stand at the Baltimore City Farmers’ Market below the Jones Falls Expressway on Sundays. You can also find them at other farms around the region, including Gabriel Fields in Baltimore County and Wye Farm on the Eastern Shore.
Long Creek Homestead in Frederick is hosting its 8th annual Pawpaw Fest on Sept. 16, where visitors can sample pawpaw ice cream and learn how to make jam with the tropical fruit.
Speaking of jam, Atwater’s also sells its own limited edition version that is also flavored with brown sugar, ginger and other spices.
When you do get the chance to try a pawpaw for yourself, you can expect the ripened pulp to have a mild, sweet flavor with a slightly soft texture. Be sure to discard the skin and dark, shiny row of seeds found inside — they’re not edible.
Some people have allergic reactions to the pawpaw, so if you’ve never tasted one before, be sure to sample a small amount first.
However you choose to consume them, do it quickly. The fleeting season comes just once a year.