“Where, oh, where is dear little Nellie? Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch.” If you grew up in North Carolina, chances are you heard this song at some point. Chances are somewhat lower, though, that you actually know what a pawpaw is, or what role they play in local culture. It is somewhat surprising that the pawpaw is so obscure, since it was at one point among the favorite foods of America’s Founding Fathers, and is the largest native fruit-bearing plant in the United States.
Superficially, a pawpaw tree is unremarkable. It is an ordinary-looking medium-sized shrub with a maximum height of about 45 feet (although 35 feet is more typical), and teardrop-shaped leaves. The pawpaw fruit, after which the tree is named, is an oblong-shaped green berry up to six inches long. It contains several hard, black seeds embedded in a soft, yellowish pulpy interior. Although these fruits contain more protein than apples, bananas, or oranges, along with a significant amount of antioxidants, they are, surprisingly, rarely eaten by humans.
This was not always the case. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both named the pawpaw as one of their favorite fruits, and Jefferson even planted them on his estate at Monticello. Lewis and Clark found the pawpaw to be an invaluable food source during the early part of their expedition to the West Coast. Soon after the beginnings of the United States, however, the pawpaw lapsed into obscurity. By the late 20th century, only hobbyists and horticulture enthusiasts were actively growing them, and the community of pawpaw lovers was small and scattered.
The pawpaw also supports a complex ecological community. Because pawpaw plants have multiple shoots, what looks like multiple trees growing close together is often only one plant. To reproduce, therefore, pawpaw flowers are insect-pollinated. The flowers are dark purplish-red, and possess an odor similar to decaying meat. This serves to attract the plant’s pollinators—carrion beetles and blowflies. Another insect that visits pawpaw trees is the zebra swallowtail butterfly, whose caterpillars feed exclusively on their leaves. The caterpillars store noxious chemicals from the leaves inside their bodies, and their bright yellow and black stripes are a warning to predators that they are poisonous. The fruits themselves are eaten not only by humans, but by squirrels, raccoons, opossums, and various birds—all drawing yet more species into the pawpaw’s web of symbiosis.
Lately, there have been movements to bring the pawpaw back into the limelight. Many people, including some here in Davidson, support the pawpaw not only as a food source but also as a symbol of the potential that native plants have. They must act quickly, however. As more and more tracts of native vegetation are bulldozed to make way for suburban developments, the pawpaw, along with other native plants, is being squeezed out. For the moment, one solution that is being tried is to dig up pawpaw seedlings in areas in danger of being paved over and to transplant them elsewhere. However, this is obviously only a temporary solution. A full-scale overhaul of the way we treat our forests will be necessary to save these unique plants.
There is hope, though. Not only are many nature enthusiasts who live in pawpaw habitat taking steps to keep the species growing in the future, but many of them are also busy trying to introduce the pawpaw back into local cuisine. Pawpaws now grace the kiosks and booths of farmers’ markets throughout North Carolina, creating a renewed interest in what can be done with this plant.
The pawpaw will probably not be a mass-produced crop in the way that other, more familiar fruits are—at least not in the near future. But whether it is or not, it should definitely be preserved, simply as a testament to the variety and diversity of native North Carolina plants