On the hunt for the fruit of the pawpaw tree

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Pawpaw tree
Pawpaw trees are the largest fruit trees native to North America. They grow to a height of 15-20 feet. (Julie Geiss photo)

Sometimes the maps app on my phone has a mind of its own. It is like a devious creature is creating obscene routes just to listen to our commentary. 

We were on our way home from our yearly vacation in the Outer Banks of North Carolina when a little detour around major traffic delays led us through the Shenandoah Valley. 

The sun was getting closer to the horizon, and the kids were beginning to question if we were getting closer to Ohio. With perfect timing usually only in movies, Country Roads by John Denver began to play as we rolled through Paw Paw, West Virginia. 

My singing broke my kids’ screen-induced stupor. They tossed their devices aside to admire the beautiful sunset and quaint little town and also to tell me to stop singing.

We had passed through Paw Paw once before for a relative’s wedding and stopped to inspect the Paw Paw Tunnel. The town of Paw Paw and the tunnel sit on opposing sides of the border between West Virginia and Maryland. 

Paw Paw Tunnel

Located in Allegheny County, Maryland, the Paw Paw Tunnel is a relic of the C&O Canal. Construction began in 1836 to bypass six miles of the Potomac River known for five horse bend turns, called the Paw Paw Bends. 

Instead of the projected two years to finish and $33,500 price tag, the project took 14 years and $616,478.65 to complete. An unbelievable 6 million bricks line the 3,118 feet of the tunnel. 

During its construction, it was promoted as a wonder of the world. Workers fought with each other and with black powder to blast through the mountain. By the time it was completed in 1850, railroads had nearly eliminated the need for canals. The canal did see some use by mules and canal boats until 1924. 

It is now an integral section of the C&O Canal National Historic Park. The tunnel can be used by walkers, runners and cyclists. The middle of the tunnel gets very dark and can be quite muddy. 

Fruit trees

Pawpaw tree
Pawpaw trees can be found on shaded areas near wet, fertile land. (Julie Geiss photo)

The name Pawpaw refers to the fruit-bearing trees growing in abundance along the mountainside. Pawpaw is not slang or dialect, although some claim it is shortened from the word papaya. The fruit does have a slightly tropical flavor tasting like a combination of bananas and mangoes, but it is not the same fruit.

 Papayas grow on a herbaceous plant in the tropical regions of Central America. A member of the Annonaceae family, the deciduous Pawpaw trees thrive in the temperate climate of North America. 

Pawpaws are certainly edible and are the largest fruit trees native to North America. They grow to a height of 15-20 feet and typically produce fruit after six or seven years. 

Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both planted pawpaw trees and enjoyed eating the custard-like pulp. Members of the Lewis and Clark expedition at one point only had pawpaw fruit for sustenance when supplies ran out. 

Pawpaw hunt

We made it home safely after our trip through Paw Paw, West Virginia, with a new goal of finding and eating pawpaws. The fruit is ripe for about eight weeks and ready to eat in Ohio beginning as early as August and lasting into October. It is not sold commercially because it bruises easily and doesn’t transport well. 

My son and I headed to Hitchcock Woods Metropark in Boardman, Ohio, which was rumored to have pawpaw trees. It was a bit of a wild goose chase because I didn’t know exactly where they were located in the park. I was relying on pictures for reference and looking in shaded areas near wet, fertile land.

I noticed large leaves on a cluster of trees in a valley near a stream. As luck would have it, former park naturalist, Ray Novotny, was walking among the trees. He confirmed my suspicion that we had found our goal, pawpaw trees. Unfortunately, he explained that this particular cluster of trees has not been fruit-bearing. 

We made our way out of the park with a glass-half-full attitude. I know I can identify pawpaw trees, but I just have to search for more. The season is pretty much over for harvesting pawpaws; I will spend the next year dreaming of fruit that tastes like Boston cream pie.

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Julie Geiss lives with her husband and four children in Unity Township, Ohio. Faith and family are first in her life, but she also loves hiking, biking and camping. You can contact Julie at juliegeiss1414@gmail.com.

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