A pawpaw grows outside The Witt Stephens Jr. Central Arkansas Nature Center in downtown Little Rock. Brian Chilson

If you have a fall float trip planned, you’re apt to see a pawpaw or two bobbing along down the river with you, although you might not notice. These rare and unsung treats are the biggest wild-growing fruits in North America, but they get hardly any attention. Not even during harvest season, when these sweet, squishy pods are literally falling out of trees from Florida to Ontario.

Having been admonished since toddlerhood to not put things we find on the ground into our mouths, it’s not exactly shocking that more of us haven’t embraced pawpaws as a favorite fall snack. But pawpaws are having a moment, snagging some attention from foodie magazines and finding their way into microbrews, small batch ice cream and other hyper-local fare. Pawpaws, aka asimina triloba, have long had a roster of colorful nicknames: American custard apple, Indiana banana, hillbilly mango. Its most recent moniker is the hippie banana, in homage to its newfound popularity among hacky sackers and white people with dreadlocks.

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Pawpaw farmer Mark Blossom doesn’t keep up with any of that. He’s been growing pawpaws for decades and will continue to do so, regardless of attention (or lack thereof) from food tourists and trendy magazines.

A photo from his website, blossomnursery.com, of pawpaw farmer Mark Blossom in action.

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Blossom came to Arkansas from California in 1973, one of the thousands of back-to-the-landers who converged on The Natural State to scoop up property and plant seeds, tend cows and otherwise embrace rural life. His pawpaw superhero origin story dates back to those early days, when Blossom was exploring swaths of Arkansas forest before staking his claim.

“It was getting to be evening and I was looking for a place to put down my bedroll,” he said. “There was a little tree growing right where I wanted to lie down, so I snapped it over and decided in the morning I would see what kind it was and make amends to it.” Upon discovering the fallen pawpaw at daybreak, Blossom made a pledge. “I said, ‘OK, I will be kind to pawpaw trees from now on.’ ”

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Blossom and his wife initially moved to an 80-acre chunk of land in Madison County before deciding they needed to be closer to basic amenities when they started a family. They bought 30 acres of land along the Kings River, about halfway between Eureka Springs and Berryville, and have been there for 40 years. They raised four children there and now have 13 grandchildren (The grands call him “Grand Dad,” forfeiting a perfect opportunity to stick with the theme).

“I’m 72 years old. Most of my working career I was a handyman, I did light construction and repairs around the area. Now that I’m pretty much retired from that I’m busier than ever with a small farm,” Blossom said. They have goats, chickens and honeybees, along with a pawpaw nursery.

It’s a small operation, mind you, nothing on a commercial scale. But Blossom wouldn’t classify it as a side hustle either, mainly because he doesn’t know what that is. “I don’t hustle. I’m too slow,” he said.

Brian Chilson
Pawpaw trees that get lots of sun, like this one, will fill out into a pyramid shape. Trees that get more shade will be tall and skinny.

He sells anywhere from 200 to 2,000 trees a year, depending on how busy he wants to be or how many seeds he’s collected. He sells them for $20 a pop, a price that covers shipping in those long triangular cardboard boxes designed for blueprints. He sends seeds too, and has mailed them as far as South America and Eastern Europe. Once the seeds or seedlings are shipped, the fun begins. Blossom said he especially enjoys chatting with fellow pawpaw connoisseurs online and seeing photos of the fruits of his labor, planted and thriving at their new homes.

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“When I get people interested in growing pawpaws who are living in other countries, I really enjoy that,” he said. He’s not proprietary at all about the pawpaw business, and in fact would love to see more people try their hand at small-scale farming.

“I recommend a backyard nursery because you can produce a lot of value in a very small space,” he said. “Pick out a plant you like that you can grow from seed or a cutting, and sell them or  just give them away. You can produce a lot of value in a small space.”

Brian Chilson
A placard identifies a pawpaw tree growing in Little Rock.

But why grow pawpaws in the first place? While pawpaws grow wild and can be gleaned on hikes and boat trips, those woodland specimens can be temperamental. Young trees won’t grow if they get too much sun, but older trees won’t fruit if they get too much shade. Trees have to be genetically different to pollinate each other, meaning lots of wild pawpaw trees don’t fruit. And when they do, you have to share the harvest with squirrels, bears and raccoons.

Backyard pawpaw hobbyists don’t have to take the gamble. Blossom’s customers get a tree already coddled through infancy and off to a strong start, and they have access to a growing guide he gives for free with every purchase, and also to anyone who asks. In it, Blossom eschews the poetic for the practical, although he does riff a tiny bit on the pawpaw’s personality: “Wild Pawpaw fruit range from insipid to delightful. Their flesh ranges from firm to custardy, from pale yellow to deep orange, and their skin from thin to leathery.”

We think it’s fair to crown Blossom the preeminent pawpaw farmer of the Ozarks although he admittedly doesn’t have just loads of competition. Unlike grocery store-friendly apples, oranges and the like, pawpaws don’t travel well. They bruise and split, and they don’t stay fresh for very long. As such, they’ve never caught on for mass market audiences. Even so, there are plenty of true believers spreading the gospel of the pawpaw far and wide.

courtesy of Blossom Nursery
Pawpaw flowers bloom in April and May.

Part of the pawpaw’s appeal might be its punk rock cred. Pawpaw flowers resemble lobes of uncooked meat, which helps them attract the blowflies they rely on for pollination. Whether or not the blooms give off the stench of rotting flesh at a level detectable to humans is debatable. Blossom says that he’s spent decades surrounded by pawpaws and has never noticed. Other pawpaw experts disagree, claiming the smell of death cannot be ignored. Some of them even try to egg the pollination process along by hanging roadkill from pawpaw branches in April and May.

Blossom doesn’t go in for the roadkill trick, but does use some other shortcuts to speed things along. “You can plant pawpaw seeds in the ground but you won’t get much to show for them the first year,” he said. Seeds planted directly in the ground in the fall are likely to grow only a few inches by the end of the next summer. Blossom speeds up the process by taking seeds harvested from the fruit that ripens mid-September to mid-October and popping them into the refrigerator to trick them into thinking they’ve had a winter. After keeping them chilled for a few months, Blossom pots the seeds in January, then coaxes them along in heated soil so they’ll be ready for sale in late spring or early summer.

Blossom sells pawpaw trees only when he has some ready to go, and right now that means buyers need to hold tight until May 2022. To score one you’ll need to visit his website, a green and yellow phantasmagoria Blossom built 20 years ago and hasn’t ever redesigned. It includes links to content about how pawpaws can be used to combat lice and intestinal parasites, plus a lot of photos of the Blossom family in their pawpaw-rich natural habitat. You can’t order online per se, but you can print off an order form to send in with your check, or email for instructions on how to pay with a credit card. The functionality is not exactly up-to-date, but it works alright. Blossom’s son, a web designer, has so far resisted tinkering with this vintage gem.

Since we’re moving into prime pawpaw season in Arkansas right now, Blossom shared a few tips.

  • In Arkansas, pawpaw season runs from the middle of September to the middle of October.
  • You have to time it just right. If you pick pawpaws when they’re still hard and green, they won’t ripen. Let them ripen on the tree until they’re soft.
  • Ripe pawpaws often fall to the ground on their own. You can also try to shake them out by wiggling the branches.
  • You can keep whole pawpaws in the refrigerator to slow down the ripening process.
  • If you pick more than you can eat fresh, you can separate pulp from seeds and freeze the pulp in baggies for later.

Blossom once went to Kentucky for a pawpaw conference, and at the end of it they all sat down for a meal that included pawpaws in every course. It was OK, he said. “People do make all kinds of things out of them,” he said. “Personally I think they’re better just plain.”