Pawpaw: The Plant, The Person, Home

I learned about pawpaw trees when I moved to West Virginia in 2016.

One dry, fall day the Potomac was so shallow I could shuffle over rocks and through knee-deep water from the Mountain State to the Free State and back again. That’s when I tasted pawpaw fruit for the first time. The flavor was sweet and creamy. Tropical, yet somehow Appalachian, like the first Floridian born in a long line of mountaineer ancestors.

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A botanist might use any of the following terms to describe Asimina triloba and its various plant parts: understory, deciduous, clonal, imbricated, conduplicate, acuminate, fetid,  with leaves alternately arranged and cuneate, with pinnate venation.

To me, the not-so-tall trees are delightfully humble with big droopy leaves and strangely captivating, oddball blooms.

In Indonesia, I loved a tree species with similarly-shaped leaves. I observed ten of these pohon Bingkuru, month after month, watching through binoculars as round, bumpy berries- monkey food- appeared and ripened from green to yellow. Looking up into the canopy I enjoyed refreshingly magical views of persistent sunbeams glowing through leaves, in various shades of bright green, like stained glass in a forest church.

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Looking up into the canopy of the Bingkuru tree

My fond familiarity with the name ‘pawpaw’ is what immediately endeared me to the tree. To me, PawPaw was James Cox Alley, born in a small coal town in southern West Virginia in 1924. He loved reading, wearing hats, playing golf, watching sports, and cooking epic breakfasts- please pass the apple butter!

Scouring pictures from my grandfather’s final visit to his birthplace, I searched for evidence of the characteristic pawpaw leaves along Laurel Creek but found none. I can only hope he tasted the fruit of his incidental namesake before he passed away in 2011. I miss PawPaw.

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James C. Alley, my PawPaw

I also missed pawpaw fruiting season last year while I honeymooned in the Himalayas among dark and shiny rhododendron leaves, pinnately veined and delightful in their own right.

himalayan rhododendron
Himalayan rhododendron

Thanks to friends, I came home to a few fruits in the fridge. The juicy flesh went down my gullet and the seeds went into the fridge for the winter.

Now, there are two seedlings, also known as ‘pawpaw puppies,’ growing in the shade on my balcony. Steam rises from my WV-made mug as I sip chai- spicy, but also sweet, creamy, and a little bit Appalachian.

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Pawpaw isn’t just a plant or a person.

No matter where I am or what leaves surround me…

As every cosmic possum or zebra swallowtail caterpillar knows…

The pawpaw patch is home.

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