Florida oranges, Georgia peaches, and motherf******
dancing California raisins. Even though all these fruits are really popular,
none of them are actually native to the United States. There’s actually one fruit that’s far
more American than any of those, but there’s a good chance that you’ve never even heard
of it before. It’s called the pawpaw. This is Maeve Turner. She’s the herb garden curator at the Brooklyn
Botanic Garden, and we talked pawpaws. They are native to a large portion of the
United States, but they have this really tropical look. And they’re part of a plant family, Annonaceae,
that is mostly tropical, so they’re one of the only — they are in fact the only
genus in the family that grows this far north. They naturally grow along what’s called
the “pawpaw belt” that includes 26 states, mostly in the eastern half of the US. You can find them growing along the banks
of rivers and in forests. And if you look up there, those are pawpaw
trees. And the twigs and bark on the trees contain
a natural insecticide, so they’re also really easy to grow organically. They’re also the largest edible fruit native
to North America, which makes you wonder: What do these bad boys taste like? It’s sort of like a nutty fruit. It tastes tropical. Oh, it’s not bad. It’s very mushy. Oh, I don’t like this. It’s bitter. It’s not that good. I wish I hadn’t eaten it. They’re kind of a mess to eat, and the flesh
sticks to the seeds a lot. Maybe you’ve heard them called by of one
of the many nicknames they’ve had over the years: Indiana banana, fetid-bush, or bandango. No? All right, whatever, dude. There’s fossil records of pawpaws being
in North America as long as 56 million years ago. And there’s evidence from Native American
tribes showing that they were really prized in their … using them for fruit and also
using the seeds medicinally, and even the bark from the trees they would use for rope
or string. In May of 1541, the Spanish conquistador Hernando
de Soto and his North American expedition reached the Mississippi River and documented
Native Americans growing what some believe to be the first written record of the pawpaw. He wrote: “There is everywhere in the country
a fruit, the produce of a plant like ligoacam, that is propagated by the Indians, having
the appearance of the royal pear, with an agreeable smell and taste.” They’re often confused with the papaya,
which, while sort of similar-looking, are actually totally different species. A papaya is a truly tropical fruit; it doesn’t
grow this far north. They’re also a lot bigger, and they have
a much brighter orange inner flesh. And you know that Australian pawpaw ointment
you’ve been using? It’s actually made using the papaya species. Sorry, mate. The pawpaw has a unique place in American
history. The Jamestown settlement was carved out of
what was likely a pawpaw patch. This is Andrew Moore. He wrote an entire book about the pawpaw fruit. The Founding Fathers of the US would’ve
been familiar with the fruit. George Washington had them planted at his
estate in Mount Vernon. Thomas Jefferson knew the fruit and had them
planted at Monticello. Jefferson loved them so much that he even
sent pawpaw seeds to his friends in France, which I do every Christmas and have yet to
receive a single thank-you card. John James Audubon even included pawpaws in
his painting of a yellow-billed cuckoo in his book Birds of America. You’ll find towns named after the pawpaw
in Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Indiana. And there’s even a pawpaw festival every
year in Ohio, which can get pretty f****** crazy. There are entire towns named after the pawpaw,
so why are you probably not going to be seeing them sold in your grocery store anytime soon? Sheri Crabtree works at the Kentucky State
University pawpaw program. A lot of the wild pawpaws are gone due to
development. They’re native to kind of understory of
forests, and so a lot of them don’t exist anymore because land has been cleared for
development, to build houses and cities and commercial developments. The United States lost almost 950,000 acres
of forested land each year between 1990 and 2010, with the eastern portion of the US where
the pawpaws grow being disproportionately affected. I think people used to just be much more in
tune with nature. People would go out and grow their own foods
and look for foods in the woods, versus now people want to mostly just go to the grocery
store and buy their food. Which is another part of the problem, because
pawpaws don’t fit well within large-scale industrial agriculture. The fruit ripens really fast, so once it is
ripe enough to either be picked or fall off the tree, it’s almost too ripe within, like,
three to five days. Which makes it incredibly difficult to sell
on a mass scale. Contrast that with something like apples,
which through a process called controlled atmosphere storage can be kept fresh for months
at a time, making them easy to store and ship anywhere. In fact, most apples that you buy at the store
were probably picked over a year ago. Pawpaws, on the other hand, are inherently
finicky. They bruise easily, have a short shelf life,
and don’t ripen at a predictable or uniform rate. So even though they’re delicious, nutritious,
and native to the US, you’ll pretty much only be able to find them at farmers markets. Pawpaws thrived in a simpler time, when people
would go out into the forest and pick their own fruit. But as things changed and industrial agriculture
took over, the pawpaw didn’t really have a place in this new mass-produced modern world. But there’s almost something kind of nice
about it in a way. They very well maybe destined to be a niche
or a specialty fruit. And, again, that doesn’t have to be a bad
thing. You know, the pawpaw doesn’t have to rule
the market to be something that people enjoy. There’s a certain satisfaction in the journey
that it takes to acquire a pawpaw. It’s not an easy fix like an apple or a
banana, where you can just go on Amazon Fresh and have them delivered to you in an hour. You have to almost earn the pawpaw, in a way. So maybe they’ll never be as popular as
other mass-produced fruit. And maybe that’s okay. Not everything needs to be an apple, and that
can be fine. The pawpaw doesn’t have to be something
it’s not. It can just be the pawpaw, something that
people have enjoyed for centuries and, you know, hopefully may continue to enjoy.