The Search For Paw Paw, North America's Most Mysterious Fruit

Oct 6, 2017

James River Park System employee Andrew Alli holding a cut paw paw.
Credit Brad Kutner

If you’ve ever walked along the James River, you might have spotted a weird, oblong green or brown fruit hanging from a tree or rotting on the ground. But, the only thing weirder than the taste of this mysterious fruit is its story.

Asimina triloba, or the paw paw, is the largest fruit native to North America, and while you might not have heard of or tasted it, you should, and every late summer you get your chance.

I’m walking along the Reedy Creek trail on the James River’s South Side with Andrew Alli. He’s a Richmond native and one of a handful of full time James River Park Trails Technicians. He was also kind enough to be my paw paw hunting guide on a recent, warm September morning.

It doesn’t take long. We get maybe 100 feet down the trail before I start to notice the the plant’s smooth, brown seeds that could easily be mistaken for water worn stones. Then the aroma kicks in, a mix of florals and citrus. And finally I see it: a treasure trove of paw paw lining the trail and dangling ominously.

The trees themselves don’t get much higher than 20 feet tall, so their broad, elliptical leaves stretch out along skinny branches to collect whatever sunlight they can. And for a few weeks every late summer, that sunlight turns into the custard fruit we're are searching for.

The best method to picking a ripe paw paw is to shake the tree and scoop what falls off. Alli shakes and scurries as about 5 paw paw plummet to the ground.

He picks one up, cuts it open with his multi tool, and proceeds to gnaw out the soft fleshy yellow mass.

It’s got a sweet and a salty flavor; quite pungent and a bit hard on the senses. It's unique considering the wealth of other flavors that occur naturally in the states.

Yaki owner John Maher mixing a paw paw daiquiri.
Credit Brad Kutner

I put a few paw paw in my bag and thank Alli for his time, but the next step in my search for paw paw is someone who actually knows about the fruit, and that proves challenging. Luckily I find the man who literally wrote the book on them.

“Andrew Moore, author of Paw Paw: In search of America’s forgotten fruit

Moore first discovered the paw paw about 7 years ago, and his interest led him on a nationwide search. As we both discovered, it's hard to find a lot of concrete data about the paw paw, though it pops up throughout history: in the journals of Lewis and Clark and conquistador Hernando De Soto. Here in Virginia, Moore found a massive, unmarked specimen on the grounds of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

“I reached out to folks who remembered picking it with their grandparents and hadn’t had in decades. But there’s also folks who are working with it in a more commercial way; people are trying to breed paw paws and farming and seriously cooking with paw paws.”

I tried to find someone local who was cooking with the paw paw, but the closest I got was restaurateur and bartender extraordinaire John Maher.

"Last year I put a call out on reddit...”

That’s Maher, we’re standing in his newest dining spot in downtown Richmond, the Japanese street food concept Yaki.

"... and said I’ll give people liquor if they give me paw paws and a lot of paw paws showed up, about 30-40 pounds. And I infused it all into rum and started making daiquiris.”

A daiquiri, according to Maher, is the perfect summer cocktail. He found paw paw put a local, seasonal twist on the already tropical drink.

He skins one of the paw paws I picked, removes the seeds, and begins to mull its aromatic flesh in the bottom of a shiny silver cocktail shaker. He pours in some simple syrup, white rum and lime, cracks a giant ice cube, dumps that in, and shakes furiously.

He pours out the murky, nearly neon mix that smells as good as it tastes.

Back on the trail, after somewhat enjoying the complex flavor of a few more paw paw, it’s Alli who helps me understand the real draw of what some call hipster bananas.

"It’s one of those nice little treats that's gonna be there in the park. It's a final gift of summer that Richmond has to offer you”

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.