Bill Nash pulls back a cluster of narrow, dark green leaves as long as his palm to reveal a cluster of Michigan’s largest and perhaps least-recognized native fruit: the pawpaw.
Pawpaws – sometimes called “the Michigan banana” – once were widespread across the eastern United States and as far west as Nebraska. Settlers named the southwest Michigan city of Paw Paw after them. Thomas Jefferson grew them at Monticello. George Washington ate them for dessert. In September 1806, explorer William Clark wrote that the men on his and Meriwether Lewis’ were “very fond” of the fruit they called the “custard apple,” and gathered as many as they could growing in what is now Kansas City, Missouri.
They've fallen out of favor in modern times, mostly because they're hard to ship and don't keep long. The pawpaw's short two- to three-week harvest season, and its delicate nature make it difficult to grow and ship commercially.
But, with growing public interest in native fruits, it’s an up-and-coming culinary star, adding an element to beer, baked goods and desserts.
“It’s very good, it’s very nutritious and it’s a native fruit,” said Nash, of Nash Nurseries, which he operates with his wife, Jan; son Jonathan and daughter-in-law Abby. They’ve been growing pawpaws both as a landscape tree and experimenting with it as a fruit crop.
Split one of the oblong, medium-green fruit in half, and you’ll find a line of large black seeds surrounded by a creamy, pale flesh that reminds some people of bananas with a hint of vanilla. Others compare it to its tropical cousin, the cherimoya.
“People say, ‘It’s good, I like it, but I can’t quite place the flavor,” Nash said. “It tastes like a pawpaw.”
The fruits are healthy eating, with about 80 calories each and significant amounts of iron, manganese, magnesium, potassium and vitamin C.
ut pawpaws bruise easily and last only a few weeks in the fridge, unlike apples, which can stay in cold storage for months.
Nash said he expects the fruit’s commercial future to be in puree, which can be extracted and frozen for a long shelf life. That’s mostly what those who develop new food and drink are using as they work, he said.
Ellison Brewery & Spirits in East Lansing has brewed up a firkin – about 72 pints – of pawpaw beer as a test. It's scheduled to be tapped Friday, Oct. 14.
“It’s a wheat-based beer, and then we add the pawpaw fruit into it to give it a little bit of complexity,” said owner Eric Elliott. He said a customer turned brewers onto the pawpaw.
“We never heard of it, but we said, ‘Hey, let’s give it a try.’"
He said they’ll also add pawpaws to hard cider and see what happens.
“You’re always trying to do something unique, and anytime you can incorporate Michigan agriculture into a product, it’s usually a home run,” he said. “We grow so much great stuff here.”
The Nashes have bubble-wrapped orders of pawpaws to send to a New York City chef. They've fielded a call from an out-of-state distiller interested in making pawpaw liqueur. Zingerman’s Creamery makes a pawpaw gelato, using fruit grown near its home base in Ann Arbor. At Lance’s Bakery in Owosso, owner Lance Ellenberg and his bakers are working to find ways to incorporate pawpaw puree into baked goods such as scones.
Nash employee Garyt Forman sold out of pawpaws at the Meridian Farmers Market on Oct. 1. He’ll be there Saturday and Oct. 15 as well.
“About 85 percent of people have no idea what they are,” he said. “I had a few people who said, ‘I’ve heard of them, I’ve never tried them.'"
The good news: Most who tried them liked them.
If you want to try a fresh one, act fast: picking season is now and is likely to be over in another 10 days or so.