Photo Caption: Jason Schierloh, left and Griffin Chmiel compete in a pawpaw-eating contest during the 2008 Ohio Pawpaw Festival.
Dangling in clusters from a tree is a thick-skinned fruit that has a taste somewhere between a banana and mango and seeds the size of lima beans. With its appearance and taste like that of a tropical fruit, some might guess a papaya or guava. However, this creamy-like fruit called a pawpaw is indigenous to the Appalachian region and enjoys status as the largest native fruit in North America.
The changing seasons in southeast Ohio makes an ideal climate for pawpaws to grow. This pawpaw is sensitive to weather conditions and usually ripens within a four-week period between mid-August and early October depending on various factors. As with many other fruits and crops this year, unfavorable weather conditions earlier this summer resulted in fewer pawpaws, though there will be plenty for the annual Ohio Pawpaw Festival this Friday through Sunday near Albany.
The early spring heat combined with summer storms and the current dry conditions all have factored into a decline in fruit production, explained Chris Chmiel, creator and director of the Pawpaw Festival and founder of Integration Acres organic farm. Last year, pawpaws didn't ripe until festival time, but this year they started to ripen much earlier, he said.
Growers of a variety of vegetables and fruits, including the pawpaw, have seen the effects the earlier warm and dry weather had on planting and harvesting schedules.
"The late freeze and then the heat wave reduced my pawpaw crop compared to in years past," said Dr. Ron Powell of Cincinnati, pawpaw farmer and president of the Ohio Pawpaw Growers Association. "I found the fruit not to be as plump, and my crop was reduced to around 50 percent."
Despite the decrease in the amount of fresh pawpaws available at the festival, visitors will still have the chance to savor the sweet, tangy fruit in a variety of forms. Brewers including Jackie O's of Athens and Weasel Boy Brewing Company will have pawpaw beer on hand. Frozen pawpaw pulp and jarred pawpaw products will be available to those with an appetite.
Some may wonder why the pawpaw isn't next to the red delicious apple or Bartlett pear in the grocery store. The main reason for the lack of pawpaw presence in supermarkets across the country is its limited shelf life, according to Powell.
The harvesting time for pawpaws is very limited, usually in a four- to six-week period, Powell said. "They don't ripen all at the same time so you are constantly harvesting them. If you pick them too early, they won't ripen like a banana would, but if you pick them when they are ripe, then they will only last several days unless refrigerated."
Chmiel agreed pawpaws do not store for long once they're picked off the tree because the skin is already soft so they don't transport well.
Even though pawpaws lack a spot next to common fruits at the supermarket, it doesn't mean they lack important nutrients and benefits for the human body.
Robert Brannan, associate professor of food and nutrition sciences at Ohio University, has found a niche in the world of pawpaws. He is interested in the makeup of the pawpaw and has published a study showing pawpaws have high antioxidant levels, something that many people are increasingly seeking in their food.
"If I had to compare the pawpaw to another fruit in terms of antioxidants, I would say it's between a cranberry and cherry," he said. "I think scientists should put a health halo over this fruit because more research would be done. The pomegranate is a good example because it started with one man investing research into the fruit and now look at the effects."
The pawpaw adds to the biological diversity in the Appalachian region and is one of the reasons Chmiel says he wanted to start a festival – to bring awareness to the native fruit. Since 1999, the Ohio Pawpaw Festival has been educating the community about the history of pawpaws through food and entertainment.
"Ohio is really blessed to have some of the best native pawpaw genetics in the region, and I hope people educate themselves on the lasting economic and health impact of this unusual fruit," Chmiel said.