Local naturalist says the pawpaw, the official native fruit of Ohio, is struggling with climate change
Former naturalist and paw lover George Bieri of Glen Helen Nature Preserve said he gets spiritual satisfaction from growing, sharing, and eating paws.
Last September, during peak paw-picking season, he took me to a secret, wild paw grove near his home south of Yellow Springs. We hiked down a steep forest trail that he had actually built to a valley near the Little Miami River.
Bieri carries a scythe on a trail south of Yellow Springs
“I’ve taken care of it for thirty years,” he said.
He said he is constantly fending off hungry deer and battling invasive plants like honeysuckle to keep the forest healthy – so that native plants like paws can thrive.
We reached the flat meadow landscape and George pointed out the first paw tree. Like an old friend, he knew his age and history.
“I had given this seedling.” He said, “So I planted it and now the sucker is 32 years old.”
The tree was at least 25 feet tall. The trunk was small compared to the oak and walnut trees nearby. There were scars on the bark of deer rubbing their antlers on it.
I looked up, all the broad, green papaya leaves fused in the canopy. George shook the tree, but no fruit fell to the ground. He said it had been a tough year for Pawpaws.
“It was May 11th.” Bieri said, “We had a hard frost cut to twenty-nine degrees and then they were right in their flowering stage. So this is a very late frost. That really stressed the trees and it definitely stressed the pollinators, and then we had this very dry summer. “
Bieri said droughts and weather fluctuations from climate change have affected his paw paws.
We wandered back to George’s farm. All around us were papaya trees that George had grown from seedlings – some of which were planted decades ago. These were varieties, meaning that they were bred for a specific taste, size, and texture. He hoped that in the future they would be better equipped to withstand challenges like drought and frost.
Suddenly George stopped and slowly pointed.
“Right there is a paw. You see the light on the leaves, ”he said.
A group of papaya fruits hanging from a tree in Bieri’s courtyard
It took a second, but then I spotted a group of papaya fruits hanging from a branch. They were a smooth, soft green color. On the branch, they almost look like an unripe pear that you could pick up at the supermarket.
We sat at a picnic table in his back yard, where five ripe paws stood on a plate. He picked one up. The skin was green with an orange hue. It smelled tropical but slightly musky. He cut one open and the inside was custard-like like a ripe avocado.
“You cut it like a soft-boiled egg, you whip it in half with your spoon. Vacuum the seeds clean – plenty of good meat is on the seeds. “He said,” When you’re done with this half, put the seeds back in, OK? You put that aside. Then you eat the other half. “
To me it tasted like a banana and pumpkin combo with caramel undertones. I’ve heard other people say it tastes like a mango or a pineapple or a kiwi.
These strange fruits are becoming increasingly popular. The paw is ancient, but not commercially available due to its very short shelf life. However, some local restaurants have started adding seasonal papaya products to their menus: cakes, ice cream, even curries. But for George, he said it was more about sharing with friends and family. For most of September, he attends the Ohio Pawpaw Festival near Athens and meets with Pawpaw enthusiasts from across the mid-Atlantic. It was canceled this year due to the pandemic.
He took the seed the size of a guitar in the palm of his hand.
“Then you take the whole thing, all you have is the bowl and you put one half over the other. And that’s what you’re throwing out. “He said,” Kind of a little package, dig it “?
He said it could take seven years for these little seeds to grow into trees that could bear their own fruit. But George said he was dedicated to the paw and its future in the Miami Valley.
He threw the packet of seeds into his garden.
Environmental reporter Chris Welter is a corps member of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.