February 25, 2024 9:45 am
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Michigan’s Own Tropical Fruit Gets a Popularity Boost

Credit: iStock

Jeff Fuentes Gleghorn

Few Michiganders ever learn about the pawpaw fruit, a unique tropical fruit that is native to the state. Recently Marc Boone, one of the only people who cultivates the plant, began selling his pawpaws to farmers markets. Now his u-pick orchard is picked bare before the season ends. According to Mlive, Boone asked the restaurant group Zingerman’s if they wanted to buy pawpaws from him, and they started telling others about his orchard. 

The pawpaw grows wild all across the eastern half of North America, ranging from Texas into parts of Canada, and is claimed by nearly every state it grows in. The pawpaw is called the Kansas Banana, Appalachian Banana, Indiana Banana, or Michigan Banana, depending on who you ask. It looks like a papaya, which is how it got its name, but tastes like mango, banana, and pineapple mixed together. Even though the pawpaw contains vitamins and healthy fats and grows in a wide range, it is not commercially grown and sold because it is hard to transport. The pulp of the fruit is soft, with a custard-like consistency, meaning pawpaws bruise easily and have to be shipped in a single layer. 

Anyone thinking of growing the pawpaw themselves have a few problems to consider. First, even if it is native, it is not always easy to cultivate. Mlive reported that Boone struggled to keep his orchard alive at first. In 1987, he “planted 300 pawpaw trees, expecting most of them to die.” Plus there is the matter of the smell. Pawpaw flowers bloom dark red and brown every spring, but since they are pollinated by flies, they have evolved to smell like rotting meat. Would-be growers also need to collect saplings from multiple pawpaw groves, or risk a bare tree in the fall. Pawpaws send runners out, which grow into new trees that are genetically identical, which means they cannot pollinate each other. An orchard would need to have trees from several groves, or no fruit will grow. For most people, it will be best to forage for pawpaws, or else visit an established orchard like Boone’s next fall, when the Michigan Banana has not been picked clean.