This article was updated at 9:32 a.m. ET on March 6, 2019.
In 1916, agricultural experts voted the pawpaw the American fruit most likely to succeed, ahead of blueberries and cranberries. But today most people have never even heard of it, let alone tried it. What is the pawpaw, and how did we forget it? Listen in this episode for a tale that involves mastodons and head lice, George Washington and Daniel Boone, and a petite but passionate community of pawpaw obsessives.
The pawpaw belongs to a family of tropical fruits called custard apples, and its cousins are popular throughout Central and South America. The guanábana, or soursop, makes for a common ice-cream flavor in Mexico; the cherimoya is one of Peru’s most beloved fruits. What, then, is the tropical pawpaw doing so far north—and why has it been overlooked?
The answer to the first question is simple, according to Andrew Moore, the author of Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit: It is a very ancient plant that emerged when the planet was much warmer. When things cooled down, it likely survived in a few pockets of North America, only to be redistributed across the Eastern part of the continent in the intestines of very large animals.* “Before humans showed up in North America, the pawpaw was eaten by large megafauna,” Moore explained. “Things like giant ground sloths or mastodons would have eaten the fruit whole, carried it across large distances, and then, through their droppings, deposited seeds.”