TRIGG — Pawpaws were George Washington’s favorite dessert and they reputedly kept pioneer Mary Draper Ingles alive on her long walk home after escaping the Shawnees.
The pawpaw, Asimina triloba, is our country’s largest edible native fruit. There’s probably one growing within miles of your home, but chances are you’ve never tasted it.
Which is a shame, Jessee Ring says, because pawpaws are a delight. Ripening in late August through early October, pawpaws right off the tree are as creamy and delicious as banana pudding.
Ring, owner of JBR Vineyards in Giles County, will soon be planting a pawpaw orchard at his vineyard. No, he’s not thinking of making pawpaw wine. He envisions folks coming to buy his fine wines and wandering down to the pawpaw patch to pick pawpaws in a few years. Maybe pairing his Reisling wine with pawpaws for a picnic.
“I grew up in Narrows so I know pawpaws,” Ring said. “I’ve always liked the song that goes ‘Pickin’ up pawpaws, put ‘em in your pocket. Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch.’”
Today, Ring and his wife Debby will host their first annual Pawpaw Festival at the hilltop winery outside of Trigg, an eastern Giles County hamlet that is a few miles from Bear Spring and a few more miles from Staffordsville — a place that could generally be described as “way out near Walker Mountain.”
“Visitors can help us plant a few pawpaws, learn more about pawpaws in general, tour our vineyard and winery, taste our wine and relax,” Ring said. “Admission is free and this event is dog-friendly.”
One of the first things Ring will tell you is that a ripe pawpaw is not the prettiest fruit in the bowl. When they’re ripe, they’re yellowish green splotched with brown or black spots. The riper they get, the uglier they look.
“You don’t buy them in the store because they just don’t keep,” Ring said. “They bruise easily and they have a short shelf life. In two or three days they’re rotting. They also don’t shelf-ripen, so you can’t pick them totally green and expect them to taste like much.”
The process of growing pawpaws is easy — just plant the sapling in a semi-shady spot, mulch it, and ignore it for about five years until it sets fruit. No insect or disease poses a serious threat, Ring says, and pawpaws are not terribly finicky about soil.
But the pawpaw has one foible: sex. The stigma of each droopy brown pawpaw flower can only be pollinated with pollen from the anther of a flower from another variety of pawpaw. Two pawpaws of the same variety will not produce fruit. And then you have to find a creature to do “the act.” It might have to be you, Ring says.
Bees show no interest in the mildly fetid flowers. Even flies may need extra enticement before they come as pollinators. Ring was advised to dump a load of manure under the pawpaws he planted at his house. He also could have hung uncleaned chicken bones or roadkill from its branches.
“I told my wife I wasn’t about to do that, so Debby went out and hand-pollinated all the blossoms she could reach with an artist’s paint brush,” Ring said.
“And we got bags and bags of pawpaws, hundreds,” Debby said.
The Rings’ favorite way to eat pawpaws is fresh, scooped into a bowl with a mound of vanilla ice cream. No cooking is necessary. Wash them, then eat them, spitting out their large, coat-button-sized seeds.
The fruit contains three times as much vitamin C as an apple and about the same potassium as a banana, according to Kentucky State University. High in magnesium, iron and manganese, pawpaws are a good way to take in protein, too.
The small, droopy-leafed tree grows wild along Virginia streams and rivers, including the New and the Roanoke. They have long tap roots that make them nearly impossible to transplant successfully. The Rings bought their saplings from Edible Landscaping nursery in Afton, Virginia.
“Edible Landscaping sells his Peterson pawpaw saplings. Peterson pawpaws are the best in the world,” Ring said. “Neal Petersonhas been breeding pawpaws at his nursery for maybe 30 years. He’s ... got the biggest, least seedy, best tasting pawpaws.”
Peterson owns the nation’s largest pawpaw nursery, Peterson Pawpaws, near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. The plant geneticist has been growing pawpaws since 1974 and has at least six patented varieties. Peterson founded the PawPaw Foundation and eventually joined forces with several universities to try to perfect a firmer, shippable fruit. Each new variety gets closer to that goal.
Jessee and Debby Ring will be content to offer their pawpaws free to a public that comes for their wines, they say. Their main focus will continue to be JBR Vineyards, which is set to produce 1,000 bottles of wine this year. Jessee Ring, a former technology executive, has grown the farm to 2 acres of pinot noir and Reisling grapes with a few rows of cabernet franc as well. He’s had a license to bottle and sell wine since 2014.
Pawpaw Festival guests may sample JBR wines in one-ounce tastings ($1), by the glass ($5), or the bottle ($10 to $25). The festival will be held today from 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. at 1360 Springdale Road near Trigg. For more information, call 250-7293 or 250-7291.