Lessons of the Fig #2: Pawpaw

“With leaves and branches that deer avoid, and fruit that is loved by all, the pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is a fascinating native tree. It’s the only local member of a large, mainly-tropical plant family (Annonaceae), and produces the largest edible fruit native to North America. Despite being a small, understory tree, unlikely to ever grow into the forest canopy, pawpaw is the most frequently observed sapling in forest monitoring plots tracked by the National Capital Region Network Inventory & Monitoring program…. One of the most tasty late-season rewards for hikers and wildlife alike is the pawpaw fruit, which begins to ripen in late summer and peaks in September and October. The flavor of pawpaw fruit is often compared to bananas, but with hints of mango, vanilla, and citrus.” Elizabeth Matthews, “Pawpaw: Small Tree, Big Impact.”

The pawpaw is North America’s native fig. Or the closest thing to it, as a sweet dessert fruit. Cold hardy and heat tolerant, ripening from Canada to Florida, the Atlantic to the Pacific (though originally native from only the midwest to the Atlantic coast), the pawpaw is easily North America’s most overlooked fruit, despite a surge in its popularity due to relatively recently improved cultivars now widely available.

In not exactly a literal sense, pawpaw should be as prevalent and popular in cold regions as is citrus in southern California, south Texas, and Florida. It should be more heavily produced than are figs in the southeast US and along the ocean coasts, since it’s native to the hemisphere unlike figs, and it’s a much larger, equally flavorful fruit as figs. That said, pawpaw lacks the extreme diversity of flavor and color of figs. Pawpaw does match figs in quality of taste, with a good variety of flavors, and some variety of colors. Pawpaw neither ships nor stores well, so it should be locally grown, continent-wide, Canada to Florida, rather than shipped nationally let alone internationally.

Pawpaw fruit can have the interior look of Wuhan fig and the creamy texture of Osborne Prolific, and many other textures and looks besides. More precisely, pawpaw often has a typical custard or pudding texture, as compared to the fig texture of gel or jam. Pawpaw is sweet like figs, rather than sweet-tart like many fruits commonly grown in North America. As with the fig tree, deer leave pawpaw trees alone, a major plus in many areas. Unlike fig plants, pawpaw trees struggle when confined in pots, and it’s not nearly as precocious, taking a few years or more to begin to produce fruit. The farther north you grow, the more early ripening you need the pawpaw variety to be.

Given that pawpaw is one of the best tasting fruits in the world, and the largest edible tree fruit by continental standards, and has a vast potential range of production across the continent and world, pawpaw is the unheralded star of cold climate fruits and possibly even of fruit in the entire northern hemisphere. Tree-ripened pawpaw is a spectacular rival to the also spectacular phenomena of pot-ripened figs in lands of cold and snow.

Another neglected star of dessert fruits in cold climates is the brilliant persimmon, the subject of a forthcoming “Lessons of the Fig.”

A cross between a Long Yellow fig and a Longue d’Aout Fig is about as close to pawpaw-looking as a fig will get. First-rate examples of all can have excellent sweet and smooth flavors and textures. Long Yellow and Longue d’Aout figs:

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