Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Book review: Pawpaw by Andrew Moore


Pawpaw: In Search of America's Forgotten Fruit is a study of contrasts. Pawpaws (Asimina triloba) are a native North American fruit with an exotic, tropical taste and appearance; they have been eaten by Americans for millennia, and are a new, hot trend; they grow wild and plentifully but keep getting lost. Some people know them well, as a part of environment and diet since childhood; many have never heard of them, or know them only as a mysterious word in a song. A lot of us have been "way down yonder in the pawpaw patch" without realizing it. Ever walked along the C&O Canal? Pawpaw trees all over - and you'll find them in the understory of wooded areas in many places in Maryland and throughout the "pawpaw belt" of the southern and midwestern U.S. Fruits usually ripen in September - go looking!

In the course of writing this book, Andrew Moore traveled the pawpaw belt, finding wild pawpaws and domesticated ones, festivals dedicated to the fruit and places where it's present but ignored. The book provides a lot of interesting information about the pawpaw's history, genetics, and potential uses - which are not just culinary, as chemical compounds present in the fruit have medicinal possibilities. But the bulk of the book is about people and pawpaws: foragers and farmers, brewers of pawpaw beer, scientists, plant breeders, cooks, and so forth. From the USDA's "Johnny Pawpawseed," Neal Peterson, onward, there are a lot of people in this country devoted to the pawpaw, and Moore has apparently met most of them.

The Maryland chapter includes a brief interview with UMD Extension's own Stanton Gill, and an in-depth exploration of Deep Run Pawpaw Orchard in Carroll County, run by Jim and Donna Davis. I got to visit Deep Run recently as part of a fruit growing class taught by Stanton - here's a photo of the Davis' pawpaw orchard in March (yes, it was snowing):


In summer those trees will be covered with enormous, tropical-looking leaves and the orchard will be fluttering with zebra swallowtails. Pawpaw is their host plant, which is a good reason to plant the trees even if you don't care for the fruit. (Grafted, carefully-bred trees like the ones at Deep Run produce large fruits with a sweet banana-mango taste - as do some wild plants, but with wild genetics you may also get small, bitter fruit.)

If you like books about American history and culture with a generous side of science, horticulture, bushwhacking, and food, you'll enjoy this story of a fascinating native plant.

I have several pawpaw trees growing in my yard, only one of which is large enough to flower - and you need two to produce fruit, so I'll be waiting a while longer (or borrowing pollen from a friend's trees). Mine are seedling trees, so I don't know what quality of fruit I'll get from them. I'm thinking of ordering a grafted tree or two to plant as well. Jim Davis recommends 'Shenandoah' - if you've had experience with other varieties, please leave a comment!

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