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The Ontario fruit that sounds 'too mythical, too bizarre to be true'

Sweet with a banana and mango quality, eating a fully ripened pawpaw is unforgettable. The problem is they spoil easily, can't be found at the grocery store and thus have been largely forgotten. Now a small group of aficionados wants to pull the pawpaw out of the backwoods and into the mainstream.

Once cultivated by Indigenous people, what some call a forgotten fruit is coming back into vogue

In search of wild pawpaws in a secret location near London, Ont. with forager and ecologist Mathis Natvik. 2:06

You can't find pawpaws in a grocery store. It's why Mathis Natvik has taken me to the middle of nowhere, past the edge of a farmer's field, down a hill and into a forest that's thickly carpeted with poison ivy and wild nettles.

It seems like a lot of work, but Natvik reassures me, it's worth it. 

"It's a rare experience," he says. "I treasure doing it just once a year for myself."

Trees are Natvik's life's work. He makes his living as a restoration ecologist. Farmers hire him with the help of government grants to return fields where crops don't grow well to nature. He often uses native trees such as pawpaws in his work. 

'Too mythical, too bizarre to be true'

Mathis Natvik grew up on a farm in Chatham-Kent, where as a boy he quickly developed an interest in the paw paws that grew wild along the waterways near his childhood home. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Because his whole life is trees, Natvik can read the forest with the mystic ability of a soothsayer. Giving you glimpses of its past, how it became the way it was and where it's going into the future. In no time, he zeroes-in on a stand of trees with large, tropical-looking leaves that seem out of place in an Ontario forest.

The colony takes up a half-acre and​ despite its size, Natvik, who has been coming here since 1994, tells me he has managed to keep it largely a secret for nearly a quarter century. 

"These are actually the first wild pawpaws that I've seen," he said. "I first read about pawpaw trees. It just seemed like this exotic tree that seemed too mythical, too bizarre to be true."

The pawpaw is a fruit with a long history. It was first documented by Europeans during a Spanish expedition to the Mississippi Valley in 1540, but its cultivation by Indigenous people was once so widespread that it still grows wild throughout the Eastern United States, as far south as the tip of Florida, as far west as Indiana and Missouri, and as far north as Southern Ontario. 

Forgotten fruit

With a flavour reminiscent of banana and mango together, the Ontario variety of a fully ripened pawpaw is tasty, sweet with a richness that gives it an almost ice cream-like texture. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Over the centuries, as New World settlers pushed out the continent's original inhabitants and turned forest into farmland, the fruit became largely forgotten.

Today, only a few people in the know, like Natvik, still harvest them from stands that likely predate first contact with Europeans, and many of those modern day foragers jealously keep the locations of their wild pawpaw colonies a fiercely guarded secret. 

While the fruit is largely forgotten, finding them and eating one can be an unforgettable experience. 

Sweet tasting and reminiscent of banana and mango, a fully-ripened pawpaw has a fatty richness that gives the fruit a decadent, ice cream-like quality.   

The problem is they don't tolerate being shipped and can spoil easily. Once picked, a ripened pawpaw can turn black within 24 hours of leaving the tree. 

'I have a pawpaw tattoo'

Chris Chmiel's pawpaw tattoo, showing the fruit cut in half atop one of the pawpaw tree's large, tropical-looking leaves. (Chris Chmiel)

It's why the pawpaw is largely a local fruit and nowhere does that seem more a point of pride than Athens County Ohio, home to the world's largest and longest-running pawpaw festival

"Where we're at, this is like the pawpaw capital of the world," said Chris Chmiel, an Athens County Commissioner who is the festival's founder and even made his love of the fruit a permanent fixture on his body. 

"I have a pawpaw tattoo and I'm totally dedicated to getting the pawpaws to the people, that's sort of been my motto," he said.

Athens County's festival began when Chmiel noticed the crop was just going to waste. 

With their large, tropical-looking leaves, skinny trunks and reaching less than 10 metres in height, pawpaw trees seem almost out of place among the maple, oak, walnut and beech that populate southern Ontario's Carolinian forests. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

"Basically in the vein of we have lemons, you make lemonade and we really have great pawpaws here and they were basically just rotting on the ground," he said. 

Since then, the festival has raised the fruit's profile, with locals turning ripe Ohio pawpaws into breads, jams, jellies, craft beer and even wine. 

"The perishability of them is their biggest hurdle," Chmiel said, who also runs the world's largest pawpaw processing company. "So we started processing them and freezing them and making shelf stable products with them."

Heartier pawpaws through science

Sometimes called 'false banana,' pawpaw fruit are related to tropical fruit from the Caribbean, such as custard apples and sugar apples and as such, can be found growing from the southern tip of Florida, through the Eastern U.S. with their northern range extending into Southern Ontario. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Because of the pawpaw's high perishability, scientists and farmers are currently trying to breed a better fruit. One that's not only larger than its wild cousins, but will tolerate being shipped and won't spoil within 24 hours of being picked. 

"We haven't really bred any that are firm enough to withstand shipping very well," said Sheri Crabtree, a researcher at Kentucky State University, who's among a team of scientists trying to develop a commercial version of the pawpaw. 

Crabtree said while some cultivars have been bred to ship better than others, scientists are still decades away from developing a breed that you'll be able to find in the grocery store. 

When they do reach that commercial breakthrough, it will give people more fresh food options and access to a highly nutritious and delicious fruit, but it will also put an end to some of the fruit's romance, which is something Crabtree recognizes.

"I think part of pawpaw is it's hard to find," she said. "Some people still go out foraging in the woods for it, but even if you're buying the cultivated varieties, it's a short season, you have to rush to get them at the farmer's market at exactly the right time."

"I do think that's part of the fun of it, the limited availability." 

About the Author

Colin Butler

Video Journalist

Colin Butler is a veteran CBC reporter who's worked in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and London, Ont. Email: colin.butler@cbc.ca