Picking up Pawpaws: Thoughts on Marketing a Forgotten Fruit

4 min read


Off the top of your head, what would you say is the United States’ largest edible native fruit?

Apples? Nope, those originated in central Asia. The first orchard in the “New World” was planted by Reverend William Blaxton around 1625. 

Oranges, maybe? Getting colder. Another native of Asia (southeast China, to be slightly more specific), the first orange trees were introduced to St. Augustine, Florida, in the early 1500s.

No, the correct answer is: the pawpaw. And if you’re currently blinking your eyes and thinking, “the whatwhat,” you’re not alone.

The pawpaw tree has grown in North America for hundreds of thousands of years. It’s given its name to towns, inspired multiple nicknames, and served as the subject for an old folk song loved by generations of grade school music teachers. Yet the pawpaw has been largely forgotten by modern-day Americans.

So, What’s a Pawpaw Taste Like? 

The pawpaw is frequently described as tasting like a banana crossed with a mango. If you know where to look, you can now experience that taste in everything from gelato, to jam, to beer and wine. 

What’s harder to find is the fruit itself. Though frozen pulp is available by mail, pawpaws themselves have never made the leap to grocery store shelves.  

That’s due to the fruit’s rapid perishability. Scientists and farmers are currently working to breed a hardier, longer-lasting pawpaw—and once they succeed, there will be a need to advertise the pawpaw to consumers who have never heard of it.

We recently spent a pleasant Sunday afternoon wondering what that advertising might look like.

Marketing the Pawpaw

Introducing the pawpaw to a populace that’s largely ignorant of the fruit’s existence would present some unique challenges, beginning with the simple fact that not everyone is eager to expand their palate. But that reluctance could be broken down by any number of creative approaches.

Idea #1: Build on What People Already Know

In the case of the pawpaw, most people won’t know very much. But thanks to those grade school music teachers we mentioned a few paragraphs above, many potential consumers will be familiar with the old folk song about picking up pawpaws “way down yonder in the pawpaw patch.” And that familiarity, however tenuous, could provide a foothold.

Idea #2: Educate the Consumer

Introducing foods to the North American public is, of course, not a new idea. Witness this 1940s cartoon from the United Fruit Company, in which Chiquita Banana explains in song how to tell whether bananas are ripe (while insisting, with a straight face, that they belong in salads). 

Modern-day consumers would have similar confusion about pawpaws. How do you tell if one is ripe? Do you eat the skin? How many seeds are there? What dishes can you make with them?

Ads centered on explanation could step audiences through the process of eating a pawpaw—and tell them why doing so is worth the (minimal) effort.

Idea #3: Turn Weaknesses Into Strengths

One of the pawpaw’s peculiarities is its appearance. The ripe fruits are soft to the touch and often discolored. Somewhat like Ugli® tangelos, pawpaws could turn this potential drawback into a strength. After all, everybody loves an underdog—especially one with personality.

Idea #4: Promote Pawpaws as a Superfood 

If quinoa and kale can do it, why can’t we? According to Kentucky State University, the pawpaw has more protein than an orange, three times as much vitamin C as an apple, ten times as much calcium as a banana—and don’t even get us started on niacin.

And That’s Just the Low-Hanging Fruit

All of the ideas we just mentioned could be supported by creating point-of-purchase advertising, organizing tasting events on local TV morning shows and in supermarkets, and driving audiences to a centralized website that shares nutritional benefits, recipe ideas, purchase locations, and background information. Would we ever create an anthropomorphized spokescharacter named “Pawpaw Pat”? We can’t give you a firm yes—but the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office isn’t giving us a firm no.

Back in 1905, in his book “A Treatise on the Pawpaw,” James Little of Cartersburg, Indiana, termed the pawpaw “a native fruit of great excellence,” and predicted a grand future for it. One hundred and seven years later, that grand future still has yet to materialize. 

But once it does, we’ll be ready for it—and if it brings any of us the opportunity to climb into a giant plush pawpaw suit—well, so much the better.