Pawpaws may become Virginia’s official state fruit. What’s behind their rise in popularity?

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)

Appalachian banana. Hillybilly mango. Quaker delight. 

Call the pawpaw by any name you like, but if one House of Delegates member has her way, make sure you also call it Virginia’s state fruit.

Native to Virginia and growing mainly in forests, pawpaws have been enjoying an unexpected moment in the sun. Cidermakers and wineries have embraced it. Foraging has increased, with James River Park System trails manager Andrew Alli reporting an uptick in visitor interest. A pawpaw workshop held by Virginia State University’s Randolph Farm this August fueled a mini wave of media coverage

Now Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, is hoping to put the pawpaw on top of the heap. 

Earlier this month, at the request of the 53rd Barred Owls scouting troop of Gainesville, the legislator filed a bill to designate the pawpaw the official state fruit, taking its place between the official state fossil (Chesapecten jeffersonius) and the official state gold mining interpretive center (Fauquier County’s Monroe Park). There is currently no fruit holding the designation.

How did this happen? How did this humble green tree fruit, which for decades has sprouted and bloomed in forests, overlooked by almost all save wildlife, suddenly become the darling of Virginia farmers and foodies?

Virginia State University professor Reza Rafie, a horticulturalist who works with pawpaws, has two theories: the local food movement and increasing international travel that has exposed more people to tropical fruits.

Because the pawpaw is highly perishable, he said, “you cannot transport it for too long. … You probably need to consume it within three days.”

That characteristic has largely kept pawpaws out of commercial markets, making them particularly attractive to people looking to buy and eat local food. At the same time, pawpaws have fit into a growing taste for tropical fruits bolstered by international travel. 

“It’s not like apples or cherries or peaches,” said Rafie. Contemplating the possibility that it might become Virginia’s official fruit, he tried out a potential tagline, riffing on the state’s popular slogan: “Pawpaw is for lovers.”