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Popular pawpaw fruit will have to adapt to climate change

 Wild paw-paw’s picked in Yellow Springs, Ohio
Chris Welter
Wild paw-paw’s picked in Yellow Springs, Ohio

Ohio is home to a delicious, native fruit that many have never heard of, or even tasted. The pawpaw has more vitamin C than an orange and it tastes–well, it’s hard to describe–but most people think it’s somewhere in the ballpark of a pineapple, mango, or kiwi.

WYSO Environmental Reporter Chris Welter spoke with freelance reporter Diana Kruzman who recently wrote an article about the paw paw's popularity across the US, and how the fruit is seeing growing demand just as its supply is in jeopardy because of climate change.

Transcript (edited lightly for length and clarity):

Diana Kruzman: The pawpaw is North America's largest native fruit, but it tastes very tropical. I went to the Ohio paw-paw Festival and just fell in love with the fruit. I love the flavor, but I also loved its history in the region and the way that it's becoming a part of this larger local foods movement as more people turn to foraging and native foods. 

Chris Welter: The crux of your article was about the threat that the paw-paw faces because of climate change. What's going on with that? 

Diana: Part of the reason why I wanted to write about the pawpaw is because I was seeing how they were becoming more popular. At the same time as that's been happening, there's also been more research on climate change and its impact on the paw-paw. So one of the main things that sparked my interest was I found this study that found that because climate conditions are generally warming, which also can cause extremes in temperature including hard freezes late in the spring, paw-paws are expected to migrate northward over the next century. 

The findings were not only that it's going to move northward, but that it's probably going to disappear from some areas in the far south of its range and that climate changes are actually going to be happening too quickly for the fruits to really adapt. 

So even though plants are able to migrate, it's usually a pretty slow process—the seeds and their pollen have to be transported by animals or insects. That doesn't happen as quickly as we're changing the climate. The study predicted that climate change might have some impacts on the genetic diversity of the paw-paws as well. 

Chris: Still, you end the article on this hopeful note where multiple people said they're confident that the paw-paw–with its kind of wild roots–will be able to adapt.

Diana: As I mentioned, the scientific findings can seem kind of dire and I have heard these really troubling stories from growers. 

But, overall, people were pretty confident in the survival as a whole of the pawpaw. No one was saying that the fruit is going to go extinct or anything like that. Instead, they were mostly saying that it's just a question of where you're going to be able to grow them, how you're growing them, and who's going to be able to find them. So a big part of it that I also wanted to include was foraging, and foragers have been looking for pawpaw’s for generations—some of them have their own preferred spots that they keep very secret and don't want to really broadcast. But, anecdotally, some foragers have also told me that it's been harder to find them in their usual spots. 

Some of the experts I interviewed discussed that as well, saying that with some of these more weather extremes, someone who's growing paw-paws for crops will be able to control for climate change by draining the soil or alternatively irrigating but foragers don't have control over that. So that's really going to be something that I'm going to be keeping my eye on with the paw-paw as more of these issues develop. 

Chris: I'm an environmental reporter, too. There are a million ways that we can show the effects of climate change and how it's impacting people's lives. Why do you think the paw-paw is a good thing that we can use to do that? And also, I found that in my reporting on it, people really respond to it. Have you found that too? 

Diana: Yeah, absolutely. I think that with climate change reporting, it's been recognized that there are these keystone species that can garner public sympathy. So obviously it was polar bears and with paw-paws, I do think that they hold appeal for a lot of people and people are invested in knowing what happens to them. So that was a big part of why I decided to write the story focused on pawpaws. Like I said a bit earlier, they're just becoming more popular, more people are learning about them and this has kind of coincided with this movement towards local foods as well as foraging. I wanted to use that momentum to show, ‘Hey, people care about these foods and knowing what happens to them as a result of climate change is part of caring about them and part of being good stewards of nature and of the earth.’ I found that people were very responsive to hearing about this message when it was about this fruit in particular. 

Chris Welter is a reporter and corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

Copyright 2022 WYSO. To see more, visit WYSO.

Chris Welter is an Environmental Reporter at WYSO through Report for America. In 2017, he completed the radio training program at WYSO's Eichelberger Center for Community Voices. Prior to joining the team at WYSO, he did boots-on-the-ground conservation work and policy research on land-use issues in southwest Ohio as a Miller Fellow with the Tecumseh Land Trust.