Lewis and Clark loved them. Thomas Jefferson grew them. Towns have been named after them. And yet you've probably never tasted, let alone seen, the rare fruit known as the pawpaw.

 

The pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is a tropical fruit tree that grows in only a few areas of the United States. According to a recent report from NPR, the mango-like fruit of the tree has "a speckled and homely skin that hides a tasty treat."

 

Although it's not sold in grocery stores and is rarely cultivated — with only a handful of orchards selling the fruit to farmers markets — the pawpaw is a favorite of foragers who like to pick them in the wild in places like the banks of the Potomac River.

 

NPR reporter Allison Aubrey hired a nature guide to help her find a pawpaw. She called the fruit's taste "sort of mango-meets-the-banana ... with a little hint of melon."

 

If you are lucky enough to find a pawpaw in your local farmers market, you can probably thank one man: plant scientist Neal Peterson, who has been selectively breeding the pawpaw for 35 years. His fruits are now larger and fleshier than those in the wild, more like the other fruits you find in the produce section of the average grocery store.

 

According to the Peterson's Pawpaws website, the scientist had grown up around the trees, but didn't think to try eating one until 1975: "The scent of fruit was in the air. Ripe pawpaws lay in the fallen leaves. He bent down and picked one up, lifted it to his lips. It smelled delicious. Why not? Why not try it? He bit into it. A revelation. It was delicious!" That led him to cultivate and domesticate the pawpaw, as well as conduct research into the fruit's almost-forgotten history.

 

He's not the only scientist looking into this rare fruit. Kentucky State University has the world's only full-time pawpaw research program, studying both its fresh market and processing potential. A number of scientists are also studying its antioxidant count and potential as a cancer-fighting food. The website pawpawresearch.com says the fruit is "more potent than graviola," another popular plant which contains chemicals said to be effective against cancer and other medical conditions.  

 

If you'd like to taste a pawpaw yourself, you'd better hurry. It's only available a few weeks a year. The annual Pawpaw Festival in Ohio finished up two weeks ago, and the fruit won't be far behind. Miss it and you'll have to wait until next year.