The pawpaw is a magic fruit. By that I do not mean that it has some supernatural power; by that I mean it is North America’s largest fruit, it is delicious, and it is free. To me it is kind of magical to be able to pluck nature’s bounty without having to thin one’s wallet.
I picked up a few of these on a hike around Harpers Ferry. The pawpaw tree is a spindly, inconspicuous understory tree, but if you know where to look, and once you see its fruits, it is unmistakable. The pawpaw fruit is about the size of a small mango, with a more rounded, oval shape, not exceeding 4 inches long. They are usually found in clusters of two to five, hanging from branches.
Ripened pawpaws have a very sweet scent. The flesh of a fully ripened pawpaw is yellow and soft, earning it the moniker “custard apple”. It also tastes delightfully sweet, but unripe ones can be quite tart and will numb your tongue. The texture and taste of the fruit rather resemble the persimmon. It is said that the taste of pawpaw fruits can vary greatly from one tree to another, but I have not sampled enough to find out the discrepancy.
I have not seen pawpaws in any grocery store. Pawpaws have a very short shelf life, and when they ripen, they do not change into bright yellow or red color, but instead start to have blotches of black. It is hard to compete with the glistening apples and succulent oranges! Native Americans, lacking access to modern grocery stores and the plethora of mass-produced delicacies they offer, ate pawpaws by the plenty. Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery also partially subsisted on pawpaws . Nowadays with so many varieties of fruits cheaply available, one hardly has to lift a finger to satiate one’s appetite! It is unlikely worth anyone’s while to go to the woods and shake the trees to get a unpredictable harvest.
But the pawpaw is special. Every fruit tastes different and is therefore special. What makes the pawpaw more special is that you won’t get it anywhere else, and it is the fruit of your (however mild) adventure.
While I will continue to enjoy apples and oranges from the grocery store, for now I shall just enjoy the aroma — and magic — of the pawpaw.
 See Wennerstrom, J. (1996) Leaning Sycamores: Natural Worlds of the Upper Potomac, The Johns Hopkins University Press.