Pawpaws, America’s latest fruit craze, are being threatened by climate change

Every September for the past 25 years, thousands of people have descended on the fields of southeast Ohio to celebrate North America’s largest edible native tree fruit: the pawpaw. With custard-yellow flesh that tastes like a cross between a mango and a banana, pawpaws are eaten raw, worked into sauces and chutneys, or brewed into beer at the Ohio PawPaw Festival, a celebration of the fruit’s flavor and history in Appalachia. .

This year, more people than ever came to learn about the plant, flocking around cooking demonstrations to watch local chefs make pawpaw salsa and buy seedlings to plant in their backyards. A few dozen gathered under a white tent to hear Brian Koscho, an Ohio-based artist and creator of the Appalachian History Podcast, talk about the plant’s native roots. Pawpaws, he said, “have influence both here in the region, but far, far beyond.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic jammed agricultural supply chains, interest in local foods skyrocketed, and the pawpaw quickly emerged as a tasty symbol of a more resilient food system. Known in some circles as the “hipster banana,” the green, fist-sized fruit has moved beyond its native range to rooftop gardens in Brooklyn, to cocktail lists in bars and national magazines, and to hobbyist fruit growers in California. The industry expanded from foraging and a handful of independent producers selling their fruit at farmers’ markets to growing small farms in states from West Virginia to Massachusetts.

Ohio PawPaw Festival
The annual Ohio PawPaw Festival attracts thousands of people each year.
Diana Cruzman / Grist

But even as this fruit finds its place in the growing local-food movement, it is under threat from a changing climate and more extreme weather patterns. Plant biologists at the University of Georgia recently found that, while rising global temperatures are opening up new suitable areas for pawpaws to grow, these changes are occurring too quickly for wild plants to adapt.

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“It’s not just more temperatures — it’s more temperature extremes,” said pawpaw researcher Sherry Crabtree of Kentucky State University, reflecting on the various challenges for the plant’s future. Pawpaws bloom about two weeks earlier in the spring than several decades ago, but temperature fluctuations can cause hard freezes after flowering, leading to crop loss.

Pawpaws are currently grown in more than two dozen states, stretching from the eastern US to parts of Nebraska, Kansas and Texas. But their heartland is Appalachia, where they’ve been mentioned in songs and incorporated into regional recipes for generations; At least six states have named towns after the fruit. Before British colonization, indigenous people in the region harvested the pawpaw fruit and used the tree’s bark for building materials; Tribes like the Shawnee, forced out when Americans tried to settle their land in the nineteenth century, planted pawpaws on reservations in Oklahoma, maintaining a connection to ancestral foodways.

Plants have a wide range of strategies to adapt to climate change, from developing drought resistance to migrating to new areas, pollinators and animals dispersing their seeds. But these adaptations take time — and establishing new populations is especially difficult for the pawpaw, whose pollinators such as flies, beetles, opossums, foxes and raccoons typically don’t travel far.

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Researchers at the University of Georgia found that because of the low genetic diversity, it is not clear whether pawpaws that manage to establish themselves elsewhere will have the same type and quality of edible fruit that we know today. A 2015 report by the US Forest Service reached a similar conclusion.

Pawpaws need a cold period to germinate their seeds in the spring; At the southern end of their range, they don’t get it as temperatures rise. However, in most locations, growers expect plants to thaw, bloom, and ripen early in the year, requiring them to plan their harvest times accordingly. Ron Powell, a former president of the North American Pawpaw Growers Association, or NAPGA, said he’s already noticed changes: His grove of about 500 trees is ripening weeks earlier than usual a few years ago. And the drought that hit his region of southwestern Ohio in late July reduced his crop to a third of its normal size.

Pawpaws Ohio Festival
Pawpaws are on display at the 2021 Ohio Pawpaw Festival.
Diana Cruzman / Grist

Forages, which still make up a substantial portion of harvesters, may be particularly vulnerable as climate change affects where papayas are found in the wild, said Chris Chmiel, founder of the Ohio Pawpaw Festival and a fruit grower. The plants prefer low elevations and nutrient-rich, moist soils along streams or rivers, which have already been reduced by urbanization and large-scale agriculture in much of the Midwest and Appalachia. And climate change is expected to bring more severe drought and heavy rain to the region — neither of which are good for pawpaws, Chmiel said.

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Chmiel said harvests can vary from year to year, but he noticed changes recently, with about a third of his trees dying. He says he’s not sure why this happened, but noted that heavy rain may have been a factor. They are working with scientists at Ohio State University to figure it out.

“We’ve had a lot of rain events [where] Instead of getting two inches, we’re getting four or six inches,” Chmiel said. “And a couple of years ago, we had a spring where it rained continuously for six weeks. And I look at it and I think these pawpaw trees are really emphasized.

Still, growers like Powell aren’t too worried, at least in the short term. The core of pawpaws’ range in Appalachia will likely remain suitable for the next century, but strategies such as irrigation can help buffer the impact of more frequent droughts.

Crabtree said researchers are working to breed new varieties of plants that are better adapted to changing conditions. His lab at Kentucky State University is developing varieties that can avoid damage from late spring frosts and ripen earlier, allowing for a shorter growing season in more northern climates. Both of these help growers cope with the effects of climate change on their crops.

“I hope they survive,” Powell said. “They are probably better adapted to climate change than we are.”


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