July 23, 2016

Mostly clear

Pawpaw a good choice for state fruit

John Gladden

CHATHAM TWP. — Quick. Name Ohio’s state bird.

The cardinal, of course. That’s pretty easy. How about the state rock ‘n’ roll song?

A little tougher, perhaps, but if you follow Buckeyes football, you might know it’s “Hang on Sloopy.”

Now, here’s a challenge: Name Ohio’s official native fruit.

A few hints: It’s North America’s largest native edible fruit. There’s a yearly festival held in its honor in Albany, Ohio. It’s been called the “poor man’s banana.” Still doesn’t ring a bell?

The answer is: the pawpaw — freshly minted as the Ohio’s native fruit by Gov. Ted Strickland’s signature in January. Not to be confused with the state fruit, the tomato. This apparently was the subject of some debate in Columbus, with legislators agreeing to a compromise by making the distinction between native and not.

Hey, there’s no money at the Statehouse these days. Legislators need something to do with their time.

Besides, the pawpaw is a pretty good choice. If you are in the mood to take a spring hike at the Medina County Park District’s Letha House Park, you may be able to see some pawpaw trees in bloom.

If you are still stuck a few lines back on the idea of calling a tomato a fruit, the park district’s chief naturalist, Dan Bertsch, said the distinction between a fruit and a vegetable is pretty straightforward. When we eat a vegetable, we are eating a piece of a plant: a stalk of asparagus, a leaf of lettuce, or a root, like a potato. A fruit is anything that comes from a flower or its parts: a walnut, an apple, a pawpaw.

The tree is found throughout Ohio and most of the eastern United States. Although its fruit is relatively large, the dark blooms are small and easy to miss. The pawpaw is more common in southern Ohio, but there is a nice stand of them at Letha House, Bertsch said as he led the way along the park’s nature trail.

“I haven’t been anyplace where there have been so many,” he said.

The 160-acre park was only the district’s second when it opened in 1976. The Letha House Memorial Trust Fund donated half the funds to purchase the land.

There may be something in the soil here the pawpaws like, perhaps a little extra lime carried in by the glaciers. Letha House also is home to other unique trees, such as chinquapin oaks and honey locusts — easy to spot with their imposing 10-inch thorns. A tributary to the east branch of the Black River winds among the trees.

“This is just a very unusual woods compared to our other parks,” Bertsch said.

From a few feet away, the pawpaw flower looks like a leftover from last season — a dry piece of fruit or a shriveled leaf — on the nearly bare tree. The naturalist gently pulled down a branch for a look.

Up close, the purple-red blossoms actually are quite pretty, hanging down from the empty branches like ladies’ hats.

Pawpaws are understory trees, growing up to 25 feet tall, with a spread of 15 feet. Their shiny, dark-green leaves, among the last to arrive in the spring, have a tropical look, Bertsch said.

The name is a variation of the Spanish word “papaya.” In 1540, the Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto reported Native Americans were cultivating large numbers of pawpaw trees. Lewis and Clark relied on the fruit when provisions ran low during their return from the Northwest in 1810. A staple of rural life from pioneer times through the Great Depression, pawpaws have high nutritional value. The tree’s tissue is the subject of ongoing research for its anti-cancer properties.

The 3- to 6-inch oblong fruits often grow in clusters, starting out green and turning lighter as they ripen in the fall. Their flavor is a swirl of tropical flavors described as custard-like, with traces of banana, mango and pineapple.

Bertsch had his first taste of a pawpaw just last year. It reminded him of a kiwi — tart, but good.

“I was pleasantly surprised because somebody said it was bland,” he said.

We aren’t the only mammals who relish pawpaws. Bertsch said opossums, raccoons, red foxes, squirrels and chipmunks eat them, too. Everyone loves the pawpaw.

Seems Ohio’s beleaguered state government got something right.

Contact John Gladden at gladden@ohio.net.