THE PAPAW, a native American fruit, is trying for a comeback. And having trouble. The marketing bureau of the Maryland Department of Agriculture doesn't know what a papaw is; no one the state is growing it for commercial purposes.
The papaw hasn't always lived in obscurity. At one time, eight species of the fruit could be found from western New York to Florida and Texas.
The name is derived from the Arawakian name papaia, for the Caribbean papaya. The spelling can range from pawpaw to paupaw, though most commonly found in dictionaries as papaw.
The northern strain grows up to 40 feet tall with purple flowers in the spring, sharply contrasting with the white flowered, shrub-like variety of the South. The papaw's fruit ranges in size from four ounces to one pound. The skin is light green, and becomes spotted with brown when ripe. The flesh is yellow and soft with a tropical flavor.
Papaws have never been widely consumed as a food. Native Americans used the leaves as a meat tenderizer. The Seminole Indians were the first to discover the plant's medicinal value, using an extract for kidney disorders. During the 18th and 19th centuries the tree was prized for ornamentation because of its deep purple flowers.
Five years ago, the Pawpaw Foundation was organized to attract research and attention for the fruit.
There has been some success. An enzyme extract known as Papain is used in food industries as a meat tenderizer and beer clarifier. In cosmetics, the product is used to remove dead skin.
You can look for papaws at roadside stands and gourmet restaurants. It's not more widely available largely because the fruit has only a two-day shelf life and there are huge inconsistencies in the amount of flesh on each piece. Solving these problems through research is a slow process of genetic evaluation and cross-breeding.
America's papaw probably won't be ready for the supermarkets until the next century. Maybe by then Maryland's Department of Agriculture will have heard of it.