The Pawpaw is like an old musician sitting at the end of a bar. It once stood tall in the spotlight, but the taste of the younger crowds shifted away and it was nearly forgotten. Recently, though the old records have been dusted off and are gaining popularity once again.
One of the most dynamic and forgotten understory trees or large shrubs in native to Jefferson County and the Eastern United States is the Pawpaw. Indigenous to low bottom woods, wooded slopes, ravines, and riparian corridors this purple flowered fruit bearing plant spreads by root suckers and can colonize. The fruit which has a banana-like flavor was a staple in early America.
Pawpaw’s have been in Jefferson County for centuries. In 1749, when the French officer, Pierre Joseph Céloron de Blainville led an expedition down the Ohio Valley he noted large groves of pawpaw growing for miles before and after the great crescent of the river (Half Moon north of Steubenville). In 1793, Captain Buskirk was killed after he and his men were killed by Native Americans hiding in a pawpaw grove outside of present day Mingo Junction. In 1853, slave catchers petitioned the county to destroy the groves around Mt. Pleasant and Richmond as Jefferson County conductors on the Underground Railroad hid slaves in the groves and provided the fruit to them for food.
The fruit is called the best of all American fruits, and a market for the pawpaw has grown in trendy restaurants. Thinks to the kindness of the Shemenski family, last year the staff of Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District was able to sample the fruit of the pawpaw for the first time. The fruit is laced with large seeds, but has the most incredible and almost indescribable taste. The consistency of the fruit is like a soft banana, and the flavor has vanilla infused banana vibe.
Pawpaws attract Orioles, Cardinals, Blue Jays, Wrens, Grosbeaks, Titmouse, Nuthatches, Mockingbirds, Chickadees, Warblers, Towhees, and Thrushes. The blooms attract various native bees and honey bees. The tree is a host plant for 13 species of butterflies and moths in the greater Jefferson County area including the beautiful Zebra Swallowtail. ■