A most delicious adventure in Southern Canada.
It is shaped like a kidney bean and tastes like a juicy blend of banana, pineapple, and mango. But, don’t let its tropical flavor fool you. You can find this fruit growing in the wild, as far north as Canada.
The first time I heard of the pawpaw on TikTok, I thought it was fake. How had I lived my entire life without knowing about this secret tropical fruit? In northern regions, we are used to seeing hardy fruit trees like crab apples or pears, but the only place to find anything remotely tropical is the grocery store.
To say I was intrigued would be a severe understatement. I spent the next two hours researching potential pawpaw groves in my area then eagerly jumped in the car for a whole weekend of pawpaw hunting.
The Land Where Wild Pawpaws Grow
The pawpaw is native to the Eastern United States and Southern Ontario in Canada. Its botanical name is Asimina triloba and it is closely related to several tropical fruit trees such as cherimoya, atamoya, guanabana, and soursop.
Pawpaws love deep fertile soils, often close to bodies of water. Typically many trees can be found living together in families of 100 or more. The parents love the hot sun but provide much-needed shade for their little seedlings. They stand up to 30 feet tall and have large pear-shaped drooping leaves that provide a perfect canopy.
I drove about 45 min outside of town to a wooded conservation area along the shores of Lake Ontario. It was a warm late September day. The picnic area was full of Canadian geese hoping to get their share of the crab apples that had fallen after the last storm.
The longest hiking trail was about 10 miles weaving through hills and down into the marsh. I read reports of a pawpaw stand in a slightly sandy hill just above the marsh, so I threw my water bottle and a couple of snacks into my backpack, then headed out.
Along the trail, I passed a couple of young deer prancing through the maple trees and even a red-tailed hawk lazily stretching its wings on its high perch. But, no pawpaw trees in sight.
I let out a deeply disappointed sigh. “Well, it was a fun hike on a beautiful day. I will just have to try again tomorrow”.
Just then, I spotted a bunch of bright green leaves, seemingly out of place. I looked up and sure enough, the trees were lined with green kidney-shaped fruits.
Pawpaws tend to grow quite high up but, give the tree trunk a little shake and ripe fruits will come tumbling down. After shaking a couple of trees, I had two full hands and a beaming smile.
A Rare Treat with a Deep-Rooted History
Pawpaws are the largest edible fruit indigenous to the United States. Their tangy custard-like flavor makes them delicious when eaten raw but also perfect for ice cream and baked desserts.
I thanked the pawpaw tree for the bounty and took my first bite into the juicy flesh right there on the forest floor. The flavor did not disappoint. With hints of pineapple, strawberry, and mango, it is quite difficult to describe. There is something still wild in its flavor.
But, it is truly wild? How did the pawpaw make it this far north, when its cousins are purely tropical?
There is fossil evidence of the pawpaw existing as far back as Miocene Epoch (23.03 million years ago — 5.333 million years ago) where the climate was far more tropical. Through the subsequent cycles of global cooling and warming, the pawpaw must have adapted to live in the colder climate.
However, humans also played a part in the history of the pawpaw. Many indigenous tribes, such as the Iroquois, Algonquian, Siouan, and Osage, have been cultivating and eating pawpaw fruits for centuries. The bark could be used as rope and the seeds could be ground into a powder to prevent head lice.
Will We Ever See Pawpaws in the Grocery Store?
Chances are you are like me and have never heard of the pawpaw, let alone seen one at a farmer’s market or in a grocery store. The problem is that pawpaws have a very short shelf life.
After my adventure, I brought a couple of fruits for my family to try. By the time I made the 6-hour drive, the fruits were severely bruised and on the verge of being overripe (though, they still tasted delicious).
Local farmers can pick unripe pawpaws to try to extend their shelf life, but they will only last 2–3 days and would have to be carefully packaged for travel. So unless you can find a pawpaw farmer in your area, you are probably out of luck.
But, all hope for the future is not lost.
Scientists are working on modifying the pawpaw. It has a good amount of genetic variability that can be used to gain the features for commercial viability. In addition to shelf stability, they are working on making the fruits larger with smaller seeds (right now there are about 6–12 quarter-sized seeds in each fruit). The scientists also want to ensure a uniform shape and minimal imperfections so that it is more appealing for customers.
I cannot share the location of the pawpaw trees I found since I want to ensure that the trees are thriving for generations to come. But, if you come across bright green pear-shaped leaves in early autumn, look up. You might be lucky enough to find a pawpaw fruit.