‘A small renaissance’: Pawpaws, George Washington’s favorite fruit, seeing a resurgence

By: - September 3, 2019 12:02 am

Reza Rafie, a niche crop specialist at the Virginia Cooperative Extension at Virginia State University, grows his own pawpaws on his Colonial Heights farm. (Mechelle Hankerson/The Virginia Mercury)

Michael McConkey can’t keep enough pawpaw trees in stock at his landscaping business in Afton.

“There’s a small renaissance going on with it. There are an awful lot of backyard growers,” McConkey said. He’s stocked the fruit tree at his store, Edible Landscaping, since the business opened in 1987. 

And as popularity of the once-obscure fruit grows, state agriculture experts say they see an opportunity for farmers and are taking steps to encourage them to grow the native plant. To that end, the Virginia Cooperative Extension is holding an event at Virginia State University with national pawpaw guru Neal Peterson in September.

For now, McConkey’s store is one of few places in the state that sell the pawpaw tree, which can grow to 25 feet tall and produce a fruit with a mango-like tropical taste. For most people, raising their own tree or foraging for the fruit along riverbanks and forests are the only ways to get pawpaws.

“They’re like a pudding consistency,” McConkey said. “Very smooth. And they’re rich and yellow, and that yellow reminds you maybe of a mango.”

Despite how much work it takes to get a pawpaw, it has a dedicated fanbase. In a Richmond subreddit page, contributors have alerted each other to good pawpaw picking spots over the years, and some said Labor Day weekend is a good time to stock up on wild pawpaws. Other fans of the fruit have suggested making it the official state fruit.

Reza Rafie, a niche crop specialist at the Virginia Cooperative Extension at Virginia State University, grows his own pawpaws on his Colonial Heights farm. (Mechelle Hankerson/The Virginia Mercury)

The fruit has a long history in Virginia. Portuguese explorers visiting the New World described Native Americans eating the fruit, the Cooperative Extension said, and Founding Fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson considered it a favorite. Washington, McConkey wrote on his website, preferred his chilled for dessert.

Many pawpaw variations come from Virginia and have Virginia-themed names: the Rappahannock has fewer seeds and are “sweet and refreshing,” according to Edible Landscapes; the Allegheny version has a hint of citrus flavor and the Susquehanna is large (and pawpaw enthusiast Peterson’s favorite).

An increased interest in eating local foods makes it a good time to encourage more pawpaw growth, said Reza Rafie, a niche crop specialist at VSU’s extension office.

“It fell out of favor because of industrial development of agriculture and food production,” he said. “It’s perishable and doesn’t ship well. And if it doesn’t ship well and doesn’t have that long shelf life, then why bother? I believe if we could introduce it and provide farmers and consumers with the right kind of information, it can make a comeback.”

Pawpaws will get overripe on a cross-country trip (ripe pawpaws are best consumed in a two to three-day window), so they’d do well in local markets and farm stands, Rafie said.

McConkey said he suspects people will naturally get into commercial pawpaw growing. He recently met a customer who has 200 pawpaw trees in the ground.

“They’re a no-brainer because they don’t require spraying or commercial pesticides, they’re native and really easy to grow,” he said. “It’s a really nice plant to add to anyone’s backyard.”

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle Hankerson

Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach. Mechelle was with the Virginia Mercury until January 3rd, 2019.