Taste and compare at the Core Arboretum’s WV Pawpaw Festival this Saturday.
If you do much traveling around the state’s Eastern Panhandle, you’ve probably stumbled upon Paw Paw, a Morgan County town with a seemingly nonsensical name and a population under 1,000. The town is named for the unique, tropical-flavored pawpaw fruit that grows natively in this region.
Pawpaw trees are the largest edible fruit trees native to North America, but “there’s definitely a lack of public awareness about them,” according to Zach Fowler, WVU biology professor and director of the Core Arboretum in Morgantown, where pawpaws grow wild. He and others are trying to change that and, in light of the fourth annual WV Pawpaw Festival at the Arboretum this Saturday from noon to 5 p.m., we caught up with Fowler to learn more about pawpaws.
Q: First of all, is it “pawpaw,” or “paw paw”?
Zack Fowler: The town is “Paw Paw,” but I’ve typically seen the name of the fruit spelled, “pawpaw”—one word, no space. You could probably spell it either way, though. The most undeniably correct naming and spelling would be Asimina triloba, which is the scientific name. Common names for the fruit, like “pawpaw” or “Indiana banana,” are just the generally agreed upon names people come up with, and they vary by region.
Q: What do pawpaws taste like?
ZF: People typically say the taste is “tropical,” and I think that’s the best way to describe it. It’s like a mixture of banana, mango, and pineapple, which are tropical fruits—and all other members of the plant family it belongs to actually live in the tropics. The flesh of the fruit is soft and mushy. It’s almost like an overripe banana—people call it “custard apple” for that reason.
Q: Are there different varieties of pawpaws?
ZF: Yes. Neal Peterson of Peterson Pawpaws in West Virginia has six or seven named varieties that he developed, and we have a great collaboration with him. Interestingly enough, he tasted his first pawpaw ever here at the Arboretum. Peterson pawpaws are grown in orchards in nice, sunny conditions, ultimately making them superior to the pawpaws that grow in the wild. We were able to get around 700 pounds of these orchard-grown pawpaws for the festival.
Q: Besides free pawpaw tastings, what else can we look forward to at this year’s WV Pawpaw Festival at the Arboretum?
ZF: We’ll have some live music and a guest speaker—Native American scholar Joe Candillo. We’ll also have food trucks in the parking lot and all kinds of nature activities and yard games going on. People have been eating pawpaws on that hillside for thousands of years—I mean, it’s an ancient Appalchian tradition. So it’s a really wonderful thing to celebrate.