"How many of you folks have eaten pawpaw fruit?" Dan Bissonnette asks an audience of about 100 last month at the Guelph Organic Conference and Trade Show. "How would you describe the taste? What would it compare to?"
The answers from the audience form a list of the world's tastiest fruits:
"A custard of kiwi, banana, and strawberry."
"Depending on the variety, some are pineapple, some would be jackfruit."
"A mango and a banana — smash them together."
"The flavour is so complex," confirms Bissonnette, a naturalist and horticulturist who for 15 years has taught courses on such topics as invasive exotic species and landscaping with native plants. "It's very mild when it's approaching ripeness. When it's at peak ripeness, it would help to be a wine taster."
Despite the high praise, pawpaw is uncommon and little-known. Bissonnette's poll of those attending his seminar revealed a wide range of familiarity: perhaps half of those in the room had eaten the fruit, but about as many had never so much as seen the tree it grows on.
"Whether as a guest speaker at a garden club or giving one of my own classes, if I mentioned the pawpaw, it most of the time produced blank stares or looks of curiosity," Bissonnette says. Believing in the value of the pawpaw as a local food source and in the ecological benefits of restoring a native tree species, he helped launch Project Pawpaw in 2011, which supplied seedlings, published a grower's manual, and sponsored a pawpaw dessert competition at the Harrow Fair, held in Essex County since 1854. "There's a somewhat greater recognition now," Bissonnette says, "a marginal improvement in awareness."
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The pawpaw is exclusive to North America; most species are subtropical and found in Florida. But one variety has a range that extends north of Lake Erie. Up to 10 metres tall when mature, Ontario's native pawpaw is a small tree that bears broad leaves on slender branches. Its showy deep-red flower smells vaguely of putrefying flesh, and its pale green fruit grows into a lumpy cylinder. Once cultivated by First Nations, the pawpaw remained popular in the years after colonization but faded into obscurity in the 20th century. The fruits are easily bruised, have a short shelf life, and refuse to ripen simultaneously at harvest time — not ideal for large-scale agriculture. The tree itself has suffered dramatic habitat loss in Ontario and is able to survive only in the southernmost parts of the province, where deforestation has been extensive. Extremely delicate for the first few years, the pawpaw struggles to regenerate after a clear-cut: even a few hours of direct sunlight can kill a seedling.
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Bissonnette had been growing pawpaws as a hobby when the 2008 recession began, and he saw the fruit’s potential as a food source in lean times. Though ill-suited to factory farming, the pawpaw is a good choice for organic growers: chemical compounds called acetogenins, found in the leaves and bark of the tree and in the seeds and skin of the fruit, are bitter and unpalatable to almost all pests. "There's a modest pawpaw industry down in Kentucky and southern Ohio, where you can buy fruit at roadside stands and farmer's markets," Bissonnette says. "I knew there was a chance to improve aspects of our natural heritage while giving people something to eat and also maybe allowing them to earn an income at the same time."
The pawpaw is enjoying something of a renaissance in the American south and Midwest: Kentucky State University runs a full-time research program devoted to the plant, and in September the annual Ohio Pawpaw Festival will take place for the 19th time. But Bissonnette, who explains that pawpaw trees adapt to their environmental conditions, says there's a danger in would-be growers planting specimens that come from farther south among Ontario natives. "The pawpaws in southern Ohio, they know how to grow there. The pawpaws in Ontario know how to grow here. And they're different from the ones in Missouri," he says. "If we take pawpaws that for 500 years were growing in Southern Kentucky — where by the first week of April it's almost shorts and T-shirt weather — and we cross-breed them with our own Ontario pawpaw, we run the horrible risk of having offspring that will no longer be winter-hardy."
Project Pawpaw officially ended in late 2012, but Bissonnette continues to sell the grower's manual and speak on the subject, encouraged by traces of the initiative's legacy. "We've got people down here in Essex County who participated in our seminars who now have pawpaw seedlings in their backyards and in their gardens," he says. "Some of the seedlings we distributed have got big enough that they had blooms on them in the spring of 2016. Once they get blossoming, it's just a matter of time before they start to bear fruit."
Daniel Sellers works as a journalist and lives in Toronto.