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Foraging: Let’s chat about PawPaws

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Today I’d like to talk about courteous foraging via a Pawpaw discussion.

First, the Pawpaw. What is it? The sight of the Pawpaw tree is a true forager’s delight. The fruit of this native tree, custardy and sweet, seems like something from the tropics: even the broad leaves and chocolate-maroon flowers of the tree look tropical. If you haven’t heard of it before, it’s likely because the fruit has two distinct challenges to contend with that keep it from gaining popularity and recognition; the Pawpaw’s exceedingly short season and its even shorter shelf life. There has been recent development done by a select few farmers to cultivate the Pawpaw as has been done with our more prolific fruits and vegetables. Allison Aubrey of NPR’s Tiny Desk Kitchen explored that topic briefly in 2011.

In Ohio, the fruit of the Pawpaw ripens in late September or early October. The easiest way to tell the fruit is ripe is by letting it fall from the tree, on its own or with the aid of a gentle shake. The skin will yield slightly with pressure. The inside with be soft like a banana, yellow-orange in color and creamy. Inside there will be multiple large seeds you must eat around. A Pawpaw picked before ripening on the tree will not fully ripen before beginning to spoil and rot, when its skin will begin to turn black.

As mouth-watering as they may be, I have not spent much time foraging for this fruit. Why? In Columbus, there are plenty of Pawpaw trees growing in public spaces, so access isn’t the issue. The trouble is, and I have this on good authority from eye witnesses, that the vast majority of these fruits are picked before they’re ready. People see them, having heard about them, and they don’t make the effort to find out that they are pulling the fruits off of the trees too soon, leaving those who have been patiently awaiting a taste for themselves empty-handed.

Taking a food before it is ready for harvest is just not very courteous. The legality of foraging those places mentioned above is in question to begin with (though it does seem socially acceptable). And I think it is the cavalier attitude of some, who take all of the spoils, that may have put these laws in place to begin with. After all, public space is owned by all, so should the contents not be shared by all? (This gets into a much larger debate that I’m not sure I’m prepared to host, so I’ll stop there.)

By all means, if you have food growing on your own private space, use it – use it all if you like. If you know how to harvest it all while still ensuring that more will grow for your future use, then do it! But please leave the Pawpaw fruit on the tree until it’s ripe.

(Do you have any ideas on how to educated people who may be the ones ruining it for us all without stepping over legal boundaries? If so, I would love to talk!)

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