They’re the local fruit with a funny name.
Pawpaws are about 3 or 4 inches long and green and grow in bunches on pawpaw trees from the Great Lakes to Florida. In southern Michigan, the very northern tip of the oblong fruit’s growing range, the pawpaw’s growing season typically lasts through the summer, with harvest in early fall. And while the official tree and fruit name is pawpaw — one word — the village, township and river in Van Buren County is two words (Paw Paw).
A ripe pawpaw is about as big as a medium-sized potato, weighs just a few ounces and can be squeezed like a peach or pear. A pawpaw’s green skin has to be peeled away, like a mango’s, and a handful of black, kidney-shaped seeds are found at the fruit’s center. The pawpaw’s green-yellow flesh has a creamy custard texture, and some people say it tastes like banana mixed with tropical fruit (a little mango, a little pineapple). But, despite its deliciousness, the pawpaw is a native treat that many people in our area are oblivious to.
“Every year or two someone brings one (to us) and says, ‘What is this thing?’” says Mark Longstroth, extension educator at the Michigan State University extension office in Van Buren County. Longstroth is a fruit expert specializing in blueberries, but he’s knowledgeable about a variety of fruits, including pawpaws.
Pawpaws can be eaten raw, or the flesh can be mashed to use in other products. A farm in Albany, Ohio, makes pawpaws into jam, salad dressing, ice cream and a wheat beer. Cid Abel, produce manager at PFC Natural Grocery & Deli (formerly the People’s Food Co-Op of Kalamazoo), says she’s heard about people making pawpaw gelato, though many people aren’t sure how to use the fruit, she says.
Pawpaws are also rumored to have medicinal benefits. A 2010 report by University of Mississippi researchers found that pawpaw extract could inhibit cancerous tumors. Longstroth says he doesn’t know if cancer fighting was the motivation for a call he received several years ago from an individual who wanted to know where he could find four tons of pawpaw pulp. Longstroth told the caller that was impossible.
“It would take every pawpaw grown in Michigan,” he says.
Pawpaws will probably always be a specialty fruit, since they’re so delicate and don’t keep up with the modern agricultural schedule. Pawpaws don’t grow at the same time each year, Longstroth says, and they don’t ripen all at once, as apples or berries do.
“It takes (pawpaws) two to three times longer to produce than a normal fruit tree,” says Ken Asmus, owner of Oikos Tree Crops, a Kalamazoo-based mail-order business that grows trees and plants and cultivates seeds to ship to customers around the world. Oikos does offer pawpaw trees and seeds but doesn’t have a retail location in the area.
An apple tree takes about three years to take root, grow and have apples ready to harvest, and about five to eight years to produce the most fruit it can. In comparison, a pawpaw tree takes four to five years to have fruit ready to harvest, and almost 20 years until it is at full production.
Grab ‘em quick
Pawpaws are sold locally at PFC and some farmers’ markets. But if you want to find pawpaws on grocery shelves, you better move quickly. They have a very short window of time in which they are palatable.
“Once you pick them, they start ripening immediately,” says Abel. “They really only keep for three to four days.”
If a pawpaw isn’t eaten or turned into pulp immediately, its green skin gets black spots and eventually turns completely black, as a banana will. Even though the fruit inside is still edible, its outside looks spoiled, and that keeps people from buying the fruit, Abel says. But when PFC has pawpaws for sale, they do well, with the store selling up to 30 pounds of the fruit in a week, at prices of $7 to $12 a pound (about $3 to $4 for a single, average-sized fruit).
Finding the fruit
PFC gets its pawpaws from national suppliers, but Asmus says there are a few places to find wild pawpaws locally. He’s seen them growing on Westnedge Avenue near Markin Glen Park, north of downtown Kalamazoo and near the Kalamazoo-Battle Creek International Airport.
Longstroth says there are wild pawpaw trees in Paw Paw, naturally, and in Benton Harbor as well, though harvesting wild fruit is more of a game than a science. And sometimes in the early fall, a vendor or two at local farmers’ markets might have them.
“It’s kind of like mushroom hunting,” he says. “You have your favorite spot and don’t tell anyone about it.”
And while scientists and growers are regularly looking for new kinds of fruit to offer to shoppers looking for the next best thing, right now, Longstroth says, the agricultural industry is promoting the blueberry-like honeyberry, the almond-flavored saskatoon, and other fruits. But the expense and time needed to develop a fruit sturdy enough to sit on store shelves nationwide means pawpaws aren’t getting much attention.
“There’s more money to be made in a tech startup than in cultivating new fruit,” Longstroth says.