Ohio pawpaws are ripe for the picking

Ohio’s official native fruit season under way

Pawpaws: The forgotten fruit

  • The pawpaw is the only known host of the zebra swallowtail butterfly.
  • It's the only fruit that provides all essential amino acids.
  • While pawpaws are difficult to ship, their pulp freezes well.
  • Charlie "Paw Paw" Maxwell was a major league baseball player born in Paw Paw, Mich., named for the pawpaw trees that grew along the Paw Paw River.
  • Chilled pawpaw was a favorite dessert of George Washington.
  • The Ohio Pawpaw Festival is Sept. 19-20 in Albany, Ohio.

Source: Ohio Pawpaw Growers Association

YELLOW SPRINGS — George Bieri is looking forward to the day when he can pick fruit from the branch of a still-maturing pawpaw tree while lying in the hammock on his porch.

“It’s an addictive thing,” Bieri said of the pawpaw (Asimina triloba), which became Ohio’s official native fruit earlier this year (the tomato is the state’s official fruit). “To me, it just sends you, man. If you’re tuned into the native thing, it just does it.”

September is high time for pawpaws in Ohio. Over the next two to three weeks, enthusiasts such as Bieri will be enjoying the rich, custard-like texture of the fruit, which tastes of the tropics and is both cultivated and found wild in Ohio’s rural woodlands.

Bieri, who has 45 to 50 pawpaw trees growing on his secluded property near Yellow Springs, including a grove of 8-year-old trees near his porch, prefers his pawpaws raw. But the fruit can be found in everything from ice cream to wheat beer to pretzels.

The pawpaw isn’t universally popular. Its bold taste wins raves from some and repulses others. Sometimes the fruit can leave a bitter aftertaste. Picking the pawpaw at the right time is paramount, fans say.

“You can get flavors of mango, papaya, banana, with aftertaste of melon, vanilla, or cinnamon,” said Ron Powell of Cincinnati, president of the Ohio Pawpaw Growers Association, which has an estimated 100 members. “It kind of overwhelms the mouth with all these flavors coming through at once. Some people can’t handle it.”

American Indians and pioneers prized the fruit for its medicinal properties; twigs and bark could be used as an anti-louse medication, for example. The fruit, which has a short shelf life, fell out of favor after refrigeration caught on and other fruits became more widely available.

But pawpaws are seeing a resurgence in popularity, in part due to the local food movement. And the pawpaw tree, which grows as an understory tree in the wild, has attracted landscapers’ attention with its low maintenance, natural resistance to bugs, purple blooms and bright yellow fall foliage.

“There’s definite increased interest,” said Shawn Wright, an Ohio State University Extension researcher based in Piketon. “I think people are becoming aware of the eating local trend.”

The fruit can still be hard to find locally. Pawpaws or products containing them currently aren't sold at the 2nd Street Public Market, according to Jimmy Harless, the market's manager. But they'll be available Sept. 19-20 at the Ohio Pawpaw Festival near Albany in southeast Ohio. To order pawpaws, contact Powell through the pawpaw association's Web site, ohiopawpaw.com.

Bieri, the 57-year-old land manager at the Glen Helen Nature Preserve, is hoping for better luck with his pawpaws this year than last year, when he harvested only one piece of fruit from his still-maturing trees. The windstorm downed the rest, and critters quickly devoured them.

“The native wildlife loves pawpaws,” Bieri said. “It’s a delicacy.

Contact this reporter at (937) 225-7457 or bsutherly@DaytonDailyNews.com.

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