PHILADELPHIA — The new pawpaw patch at the Woodlands, a sprawling historic property along the Schuylkill, still isn’t much to look at. But just give those trees time, said Alkebu-Lan Marcus, the farmer who tends to them.
He knows his pawpaws will soon be excellent providers.
The pawpaw is an ancient, native North American fruit tree whose thin, droopy branches and leaves like teardrops are found in forests across most of the eastern half of the United States.
For years fans have been drawn to the fragile, fragrant fruit, still sold mostly at farmers’ markets or on Facebook pages. But as issues like climate change, economic inequity and access to food become increasingly critical — spurred on by the coronavirus pandemic — it’s the tree itself that is drawing more attention.
It naturally repels pests, disease and whitetail deer, thrives in shade and produces large, nutritious fruit that are creamy when ripe and taste like a blend of banana, pineapple and mango.
Mr. Marcus, 27, was drawn to farming after being arrested in 2015 at a Black Lives Matter protest in Baltimore. He considers growing pawpaws — which once fed his enslaved ancestors — as part of that movement, which promotes self-sufficiency.
“The pawpaw is native here,” said Mr. Marcus, who works on behalf of the Philadelphia Orchard Project, which started a one-acre educational farm on the property this spring. “It makes you feel more secure about our ability to feed ourselves.”
Pawpaws are the northernmost member of the mostly tropical custard apple family, kin to soursops, cherimoyas, sugar apples and ylang-ylangs. Nutritionally these sweet, rich fruits are a lot like bananas — high in vitamins, minerals and energy-supplying calories. (They are not related to the papaya, even though papaya is sometimes called pawpaw.)
“Everybody in the botanical world, everybody in the environmental world — they’re all familiar with the pawpaw,” said Matthew Dain, 28, of the New York Restoration Project, which helps manage green spaces and gardens in New York City.
The group has recently increased its focus on pawpaws, distributing trees and spring seed-starting kits. Pawpaw trees stay small enough to fit a couple into small city plots — at least two varieties are needed for cross-pollination — and can withstand the already prevalent effects of climate change, like warmer temperatures or more pests and diseases.
The pawpaw is also pollinated by flies and other insects rather than by honeybees, said Mr. Dain, and it flowers over several weeks instead of all at once, which ensures that fruit isn’t lost to the Northeast’s spring frosts.
Devon Mihesuah, 63, an author and a professor of native history and culture at the University of Kansas, who also created the school’s American Indian Health and Diet Project, grew up picking pawpaws with her grandmother.
A citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Dr. Mihesuah now forages for them near her home in Baldwin City, Kan. (Sometimes she makes ice cream, the next best way to eat a pawpaw after cutting it open and putting its custardy flesh directly into your mouth, she said.)
Dr. Mihesuah focuses on Indigenous food sovereignty for Native peoples of the United States. It’s a concept that emphasizes not just access to food and embracing traditions, but also more control over the entire food system, from what is grown to who sells it.
Though there are trademarked plants from Kentucky State University’s pawpaw program and well-known growers like Neal Peterson, pawpaws have yet to become a commodity, Dr. Mihesuah said. They’re still found in the wild in hundreds of varieties, and you can grow numerous good-tasting pawpaws from their giant black seeds, which are nearly the size of quarters.
Last spring, Dr. Mihesuah started her own plants, following the standard advice to keep seeds cold and moist for a few months before they’re sown. She now has 17 pawpaw trees, which still need around five more years to produce fruit.
“If I ever move,” Dr. Mihesuah said, “they’re coming with me.”
There are also young pawpaws at the Catawba Indian Nation in South Carolina, where DeLesslin George-Warren is following Dr. Mihesuah’s lead.
Two years ago, Mr. George-Warren, 29, won a series of grants to start his nation’s first food sovereignty program, which included planting 100 young pawpaw trees.
Like most of his fellow Catawbas, he had never seen a pawpaw before. Now it is one of his favorite plants. He hopes the nation will one day breed its own cultivars as a way to earn income. Until then, he is waiting to see what growing pawpaws will teach them.
“A big part of this is recovering the knowledge that was taken from us through colonization,” Mr. George-Warren said. “We can mourn what was lost, but we still need to work on this, and the earth is our first teacher.”
Taking cues from nature is also part of the plan for Ronald Jones, whose densely planted backyard was just named the best urban garden in St. Louis at the Missouri State Fair.
Mr. Jones, 47, won his first pawpaw in another gardening contest, and has since found them to be perfect for his gardening techniques, one of which is planting a “food forest.” His yard — he calls it Blackberry Landscaping — trades tidy rows for a mix of fruit trees and shrubs growing right next to vegetable crops, herbs and vines, all left to die back and enrich the soil.
Mr. Jones, who lives in the historic Black neighborhood called Jeff-Vander-Lou, opens his yard to the public and gives fruit away via Facebook. In the future he wants to find an empty city block — there are many in his community thanks in part to 20th-century practices like redlining — and turn it into a true educational center like the one in Philadelphia.
You could argue that Charles West’s yard is also a food forest, even though he is the professional grower behind West Farm Nursery in Branchburg, N.J., just 50 miles west of Manhattan.
Mr. West, 81, a botanist who grew up eating pawpaws in Ohio, tends to more than 100 trees, the largest of which form a grove that meanders around other plants like okra, squash, berries and summer herbs.
Mr. West, who started his farm as a retirement project 15 years ago, now sells more than 40 varieties of the fruit from a refrigerator in his garage from August to October. But trees are his biggest seller: His orders jumped to 250, from 50, over the last four years.
Mr. West does tinker with other kinds of fruit trees, including a peach he regards with derision. “It has never given me a single fruit,” he said. “My conclusion is we should leave the European trees in Europe.”