Do pawpaws stand a chance on Martha’s Vineyard?

Some say the pulpy flesh of the pawpaw tastes like mango crossed with banana. —Peter Norris

With everything going on in the world — impeachment, climate change, the changing of the seasons — it’s easy to forget North America’s largest native fruit, the pawpaw.

Thankfully, a recent visit from pawpaw guru Neal Peterson to the West Tisbury library reminded horticulturists and Islanders alike about the practical and mystical properties of this curious trilobal. Not to be confused with the papaya (Carica papaya), the pawpaw (Asimina triloba) occurs primarily in the Great Lakes region of Michigan, in Southern Ontario, and in Western New York State.

Boasting an intriguing, pulpy flavor profile and green, banana-like skin, the traditionally tropical transplant also delivers a variety of health benefits: It lowers cholesterol (the pawpaw is rich in fiber, vitamin C, and antioxidants that prevent cholesterol buildup in arteries.), helps in weight loss, boosts immunity, has a low glycemic index for diabetics, aids maintenance of proper vision, protects against arthritis, improves digestion, and helps ease menstrual pain.

With such a formidable list of attributes, it’s a wonder that this wonder of nature has not taken hold in North America. “I firmly believe that pawpaws have a place in large-scale commercial orchard production. With the right set of cultural factors, they can be grown, and are a culinary delight,” explains Tim Boland, executive director of Polly Hill Arboretum. Boland acknowledges, however, that “pawpaws have their challenges here on Martha’s Vineyard. Mostly this is a result of our gravelly soils, which lack the organic matter they naturally find in their native habitat. This can be overcome by adding compost to your soil and building up the organic matter over time. The other factor is wind. Pawpaws are somewhat weak-wooded, and need wind protection for good growth, as the large leaves are prone to leaf tear, and the branches can break. They grow best on Martha’s Vineyard in full sun.”

Peterson has been on a pawpaw mission since 1975, when as a master’s degree student in genetics at West Virginia University, he tasted his first pawpaw. He had known pawpaw trees all his life — they grew in the woods behind his boyhood home in southern West Virginia, and he was always in the woods as a teenager. He admired the tree for its tropical-looking foliage and curious, wine-colored flowers.

“How come something that tastes this good has never been domesticated?” he asked himself. “Why was it not available in grocery stores? Where were the orchards? Why was the pawpaw not a commercial crop like the blueberry or the pecan, two native American species that had been successfully domesticated?” Since then, Peterson has devoted his career to bringing East North America’s largest native edible fruit “out of the woods and into the realm of agriculture, into our backyards, onto our dinner tables, and into our local farmers markets. And ultimately, someday, into grocery stores.”

Following the talk — sprinkled like pawpaw seeds with a lively Q and A — Peterson treated attendees to a connoisseur-like tasting. “Think of the wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana),” Peterson cautioned. “Its flavor is incredible — so sweet, so intense.” Indeed, the crowd was wowed by an assortment of the six varieties of pawpaw the botanist has developed during a trialing process that has included over 1,800 trees.

Like the strawberry, which only gained success once its size and productivity increased, the upstart pawpaw has encountered challenges due its thimble-size proportions and rather  modest yields. Peterson has changed all that, however, selecting for overall excellence, and retaining flavor while reducing the quantity of seeds and enhancing the fruit size.

It’s still an underdog story, but with champions like Peterson and Boland, there’s reason to believe that the fruit has a chance.

“I love the pawpaw,” quipped West Tisbury library executive director Beth Kramer.

Boland seconded that motion: “I am pro-pawpaw, and I vote!”