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Local Naturalist Says The Pawpaw, Ohio's Official Native Fruit, Is Struggling Due To Climate Change

A spread of pawpaw fruits at various levels of ripeness
A spread of pawpaw fruits at various levels of ripeness

Former Glen Helen Nature Preserve Naturalist and pawpaw aficionado George Bieri said he gets spiritual gratification from growing, sharing and eating pawpaws.

Last September, during peak pawpaw picking season, he took me to a secret, wild paw paw grove near his house south of Yellow Springs. We hiked down a steep forested trail— that he actually built—to a valley near the Little Miami River.

“I’ve been looking after this for thirty years,” he said.

He said that he is constantly fending off hungry deer and battling with invasive plants like honeysuckle to keep the woods healthy—so that native plants, like pawpaws, can thrive.

We reached the flat floodplain and George pointed out the first pawpaw tree. Like an old friend, he knew its age and its history.

“I had this seedling gifted to me.” He said, “So I planted it and now that 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 from deer rubbing their antlers against it.

I looked up, all the broad, green pawpaw leaves blended together in the canopy. George shook the tree but no fruit fell to the ground. He said it had been a hard year for pawpaws.

“It was May 11th.” Bieri said, “we had a hard frost cut to twenty nine degrees and that was when they were right in their flowering phase. So that's a really late frost. That really stressed the trees and it definitely stressed the pollinators, and then we've had this very dry summer.”

Bieri said droughts and weather fluctuations from climate change have affected his paw paws.

We hiked back to George’s yard. There were pawpaw trees all around us that George had grown from seedlings—some of them planted decades ago. These were cultivars, which means they were bred for a certain taste, size and texture. He said he hoped they would be better equipped to withstand challenges like drought and frost in the future.

Suddenly George stopped and pointed, slowly.

“There's a pawpaw right there. You see the light on the leaves,” he said.

It took me a second, but then I spotted a cluster of pawpaw fruit hanging from a branch. They were a smooth, soft green color. On the branch, they almost look like an unripe pear you might pick up at the grocery store.

We sat down at a picnic table in his backyard where there were five ripe pawpaws on a plate. He picked one up. The skin was green with an orange hue to it. It smelled tropical, but slightly musky. He sliced one open and the inside was custardy like a ripe avocado.

“You cut it like a soft boiled egg, you whip in with your spoon into half. Suck the seeds clean—a lot of good meat is on the seeds.” He said, “when you’re done with that half, you put the seeds back in, OK? You set that aside. Then you eat the other half.”

To me it tasted like a combination of a banana and a pumpkin, with caramel undertones. I’ve heard other people say it tastes like a mango or a pineapple or a kiwi.

These strange fruits are gaining popularity. The pawpaw is ancient but it's not commercially available due to a very short shelf life. However, some local restaurants have started to put seasonal pawpaw items on their menus: pies, ice cream, even curries. But for George, he said it was more about sharing with friends and family. Most Septembers, he goes to the Ohio Pawpaw festival near Athens and mingles with pawpaw enthusiasts from all around the Mid-Atlantic. It was cancelled this year due to the pandemic.

He took the guitar pick-sized seed in the palm of his hand.

“Then you take the whole thing, all you have is the husk, and you put one half over the other. And that’s what you throw out.” He said, “Sort of a little package, dig it”?

He said It could take seven years before those little seeds grow into trees that could bear fruit of their own. But George said he was dedicated to the pawpaw, and to its future in the Miami Valley.

He tossed the seed package out into his yard.

Environmental reporter Chris Welter is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

Copyright 2021 WYSO. To see more, visit WYSO.

Bieri carrying a scythe on a trail south of Yellow Springs
Chris Welter / WYSO
Bieri carrying a scythe on a trail south of Yellow Springs
A cluster of pawpaw fruit hanging from a tree in Bieri's yard
Chris Welter / WYSO
A cluster of pawpaw fruit hanging from a tree in Bieri's yard

Chris Welter is an Environmental Reporter at WYSO through Report for America. In 2017, he completed the radio training program at WYSO's Eichelberger Center for Community Voices. Prior to joining the team at WYSO, he did boots-on-the-ground conservation work and policy research on land-use issues in southwest Ohio as a Miller Fellow with the Tecumseh Land Trust.