As summer heats up, the forested Pawpaw Trail provides welcome shade from the sun. Tulip trees, oaks, and sycamores stand tall, but the trail would not be complete without an appearance by the tree that bears its name. Its long, thin trunk looks silver in the shade. Its oblong leaves bring to mind the tropics. And its light green fruit hangs too often just out of reach. It is the pawpaw.
Often translated to mean place of the wild fruit, referring to the pawpaw, Accokeek itself is beholden to this native North American tree. The plant whose name is so fun to say runs rampant through Piscataway Park, setting down roots in moist soil and spreading in groves in the lower levels of the forest.
The plant provides food to both animals and humans alike, in the form of soft fruit that ripens in the fall and tastes like a banana and mango cross. Native Americans and European pioneers valued the pawpaw as a wild source of food. George Washington ate chilled pawpaws for dessert, and Thomas Jefferson planted the tree at Monticello. And countless Appalachian folk singers have reminisced about time spent way down yonder in the pawpaw patch.
Today, the fruit has experienced a resurgence in retail popularity. An NPR segment on this “forgotten fruit” explores the pawpaw’s recent commercialization, due in large part to plant scientist Neal Peterson. Peterson, inspired in 1975 by a taste of the fruit on a West Virginia hike, has spent more than three decades breeding the plant. Now, six Peterson Pawpaw varieties are being grown in orchards and sold at markets.
While the pawpaw is said to make excellent beer and even better wine, less adventurous eaters can still enjoy the fruit baked into bread or muffins or eaten raw. If you find one, take a bite, and savor the rich custard-like history of one of our favorite native fruits.
Trail Treks is a monthly column that explores the walking trails in Piscataway Park. This year, we will highlight the Pawpaw Trail, which is located at the western end of our grounds and leads through a mature forest. Look for more reflections from the Pawpaw Trail as 2012 progresses.