What Is a Pawpaw Festival?

C. K. Lanz
C. K. Lanz
Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

A pawpaw festival is a celebratory event normally held in the early fall that marks the harvest of the pawpaw fruit. The pawpaw refers to the genus Asimina that includes species of small trees that produce large fruits and foliage. This edible fruit is the largest native to North America and can be found in more than 26 American states. The pawpaw is in the same family as the custard-apple, sweetsop, and ylang-ylang, but is the only member found outside tropical regions.

The largest and most well-known pawpaw festival is held annually in Albany, Ohio in the United States. Since 1999, the Ohio Pawpaw Festival has drawn more than 2,000 people to the Lake Snowden area to celebrate this fruit. The event takes place in early September over three days and features musical acts, pawpaw foods, and art.

Admission to the pawpaw festival generally involves paying a nominal fee for a weekend-long pass. The events emphasize the history of the fruit, the fruit in art, and how it is consumed. There are prizes for the best pawpaw as well as a pawpaw cook-off and eating contest. Pawpaw growing experts also give educational demonstrations throughout the weekend.

Also on display at a typical pawpaw festival are recipes made with the fruit. Pawpaw pies are common as well as custards, cookies, and cakes. Quickbreads, muffins, and even ice cream may also be served. Pawpaw is also used to flavor preserves, gelatin, and milkshakes.

Not all the events at a pawpaw festival are directly related to the fruit. In Ohio, visitors can sample offerings from local microbreweries or visit the Ohio Frontier Camp to learn about state history. Balloon sculptures and hayrides are other typical festival activities.

The pawpaw fruit is found on small shrubs or trees that rarely grow taller than 25 feet (7.6 meters). Most varieties prefer full sun except during the first one or two years. The leaves are typically shaped like broad ovals and can grow to up to 12 inches (30.5 centimeters) long. The flowers are usually a maroon color and bloom for about six weeks in March through May depending on the weather. A single flower can produce several fruits.

From the outside, a pawpaw fruit looks like a mango or papaya. The fruits cluster together on the tree like bananas. The flesh is creamy with a flavor that recalls banana with a hint of vanilla, pineapple, or mango. The pawpaw’s large brown seeds are about the size of lima beans and are inedible. This is the largest edible fruit native to North America and can weigh between 5 and 16 ounces (141.7 and 453.6 grams) and measure up to 6 inches (15.2 cm) in length.

The name “pawpaw" is believed to have been derived from the Spanish word papaya because the two fruits have a similar appearance. The pawpaw may also be referred to as a prairie banana or banango because of the banana-like texture of its flesh. There are many other names for the pawpaw that vary between states, such as the West Virginia banana or the poor man’s banana.

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