Those who know, know. And they’re obsessed. They line up at farmers’ markets an hour before they open for the chance to snag one. They join mailing lists and Facebook groups, where members swap intel on local hookups. Those with a green thumb avoid the hunt altogether and opt to grow it themselves.
They’re in pursuit of the pawpaw, a small chartreuse-hued fruit with a custardy flesh that tastes like a blend of banana, mango and pineapple. The flavour, evolving from bright to a deeper caramel as it ripens, transports you to the tropics. But the pawpaw tree is actually native to Ontario’s Carolinian forests, extending from Windsor to Toronto, where the fruits can be found at a handful of orchards. Every year, from late September to mid-October, the fruit is ready to be harvested. And so the search begins.
For hundreds of years, the pawpaw was a staple in the diets of the Haudenosaunee in the United States, who brought the seeds up through Southern Ontario. The fruit nearly disappeared during colonization, as settlers dismissed it and as deforestation made way for new farmland. But in recent years, the pawpaw has made a resurgence. It’s developed a cult following among chefs and foodies, with the pawpaw showing up on the menus of Canada’s top restaurants, including Canoe in Toronto. And farmers and gardeners are now growing the resilient trees in their orchards and yards in British Columbia and Nova Scotia, far outside the traditional zones.
In Toronto, Paul DeCampo has turned his compact front yard into a lush pawpaw thicket, with trees ranging from spindly seedlings to a 26-foot-tall giant that brushes the top of his roof. Camouflaged underneath the canopy of broad feathered leaves, clusters of pawpaw delicately hang, creating a secret paradise on an otherwise typical residential street.
DeCampo first heard about the pawpaw in the late 1980s in the reference book Native Trees of Canada by R.C. Hosie. He grew up in the food business – his grandfather had a fruit farm and his father was a produce supplier – so he was surprised to read of a tree indigenous to Ontario that he hadn’t heard of before. He tracked down someone selling seedlings (or really, “two sticks with roots,” he says), planted them in his front yard, and then waited 10 years for the trees to bear fruit. “But that shouldn’t scare people away,” DeCampo tells me. “It usually takes three or four years.”
Pawpaw trees are naturally pest-repellant, mildew-resistant, thrive in partial shade and don’t require much pruning. The biggest threat to DeCampo’s harvest is wildlife. “We had a bit of a raccoon party on the roof. They knocked five to the ground,” says DeCampo, who in some years has lost all of his fruits to critters. “There’s always this tension at the end of the season between waiting for optimal ripeness or losing them to predators.”
With only around a week-long shelf life, the pawpaw is a rare treat – and an outlier in Canada’s current food system, where we can buy seemingly any fruit or vegetable from anywhere in the world, at any time of the year. Because of the short window of ripeness, there aren’t any large commercial pawpaw farms in Ontario. Instead, they grow at orchards dotted throughout Southern Ontario and as far north as Owen Sound, each with less than a dozen or so trees. Every fall, foodies and chefs anxiously wait for the fruit to arrive.
“We get e-mails and phone calls starting in February,” says Jonathan Forbes of Forbes Wild Foods, which sells foraged and hard-to-find local produce at farmers’ markets across Toronto. “We got around 1,000 pounds last year and it’s not nearly enough for what people want.”
Ron Thiessen, who owns Thiessen Farms in the Niagara region and sells the fruit at the Georgetown Farmers’ Market, can get around 500 pounds from his 15-year-old trees. “People show up so early at the market because we never have too many and they don’t want to miss out,” he says. “Everyone has their favourite vegetables, but the pawpaw gets the strongest reaction. People go crazy.”
Many eat the fruit raw, like a papaya: Slice it open, remove the large black seeds and scoop up the creamy filling.
“It’s this weird little alien plant,” says Tawnya Brant, a Haudenosaunee chef who lives on Six Nations of the Grand River. “What is this doing here? Nothing tastes like that around here.”
She first tried it around seven years ago, when she started focusing on incorporating traditional Indigenous foods into her cooking. She’s since made pawpaw cream pies and sauces and vinaigrettes, ideal for drizzling over barbecued meats.
For Brant, the pawpaw is an example of how Indigenous culture has been lost – and why it needs to be revived. “There’s been a lot of Indigenous restoration work going on, like bringing back ceremony and learning languages,” she says. “I feel like food is a link in that chain. In terms of cultural significance, it’s sad because the pawpaw is just something you hear about: ‘There was this fruit but I’ve never had it. I don’t know what it looks like.’”
To help revitalize the pawpaw, Brant’s mother, Terrylynn, who started the Mohawk Seedkeepers garden, is planting seedlings out in the wild on Six Nations. “This is the Carolinian forest, these plants are supposed to be here. But they’re not around,” Brant says. “That’s why my mom is planting them. We want to restore our forests.”
Other efforts are being made to reintroduce pawpaw trees into the wild. Local food activists and horticulturists have planted along the Don Valley ravines in Toronto, in healing gardens, community farms and university campuses. And a new wave of gardeners are planting the trees in their own backyards. The Facebook group Ontario Pawpaw Growers boasts more than 2,000 members, where budding hobby farmers share tips on where to find seedlings, ideal planting locations and how to keep wildlife away.
Grimo Nut Nursery in the Niagara region, Ontario’s main supplier of pawpaw trees, has seen interest skyrocket in the past decade, with sales increasing to around 800 trees a year from 30. (Presales start in July and are shipped the following March.)
For DeCampo, part of the joy of growing pawpaw is introducing the fruit to neighbours, friends and family. But the other part is the rich history it evokes.
“I love the idea of thinking about the giant sloths 200,000 years ago in what is now the Carolinian biosphere, eating the fruit and spreading the seeds behind them,” he says. “It gives me a connection to the long geological history of this landscape.”
How to eat pawpaw
Like papaya, mangoes and other tropical fruits, many people eat pawpaws straight up by simply slicing the fruit in half, removing the seeds and scooping out the sweet yellow flesh. But if you want to experiment in the kitchen, the pawpaw is an excellent addition to desserts, breads, vinaigrettes and sauces. Here are a few tips for cooking with pawpaws.
Get your hands on some
When it comes to cooking with pawpaws, the most challenging step is actually acquiring the elusive fruit. You won’t find it in major grocery stores or likely even your local fruit stands. Instead, if you’re in Ontario, head to farmers’ markets in October. (To avoid disappointment, contact your local supplier to check if and when they’ll have the fruits in stock.)
Small fruit, big flavour
Some vendors may limit the amount of pawpaws individuals can purchase. Luckily, the pawpaw packs a big punch. “Its flavour is very potent. You don’t need much,” says Haudenosaunee chef Tawnya Brant. She suggest pairing pawpaw with complementary fruits, such as peaches, which don’t have as strong of a flavour and can act as a carrier for the pawpaw.
As the pawpaw has become more popular, a few cookbooks dedicated to the fruit have come out, including The Pocket Pawpaw Cookbook by Sara Bir and For the Love of Pawpaws by Michael Judd.
Have extra fruit? Freeze it
Pawpaws have an incredibly short shelf life and can turn from ripe to rotten in only a few days. The fruit is ripe when it’s soft to the touch, like an avocado or peach. As it ripens, a few dark splotches on the skin is normal, but if the pawpaw turns completely black or brown, it’s spoiled. If you won’t be able to eat all your fruits before they start to turn, throw them in the freezer. “Pawpaws can be frozen whole, so you can deal with them later,” Brant says.