The exotic-tasting fruit, though native to North America, is hard to come by. But in one man’s backyard near the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, dozens fall each year.
When Reza Farzan wakes up, the first thing he does is check on his pawpaws. He is a 70-year-old bookkeeper with a full workload, but September is pawpaw season, and he is waiting for his fruit to drop. It will — in its own time.
Thirty years ago, when he moved into an unassuming mint-green townhouse in Brooklyn, he planted two baby pawpaws — a tree it’s safe to say that few on his block, if not in the entire borough, had ever heard of. What followed was a decades-long exercise in patience and devotion, in service of an overlooked plant that’s all the more charming for its stubbornness and singularity.
If you’ve ever sampled an American custard apple, a prairie banana or a hillbilly mango, then you’ve eaten a pawpaw. Despite occurring naturally up and down the East Coast (and a small slice of Canada) and being North America’s largest native edible fruit, the pawpaw is criminally undersung and difficult to source.
The fruit has a brief season (generally limited to September, with some regional variation) and a shelf life of only three to five days. It bruises easily, making it a poor candidate for conventional grocery stores. If there were such a thing as an anticapitalist fruit, the pawpaw, commonly foraged in the wild and inherently resistant to commodification, might qualify.
In spite of these quirks — or perhaps because of them — the pawpaw enjoys a small but devoted following. For a plant whose preferred growing region is the temperate zone of North America, the pawpaw is an uncannily exotic-tasting delicacy, a far-flung cousin of the tropical soursop, or guanábana. Its mottled green skin conceals a creamy yellow pulp that tastes of banana and mango; locavore-minded chefs alchemize it into ice cream, beer, bread and tasting-menu fodder — that is, when it’s not simply eaten raw with a spoon.
The exact number of pawpaw trees in New York City is not on any official record, but there aren’t many. There are none in Central Park, at least not as far as Central Park’s arborists know. There are seven pawpaw trees among the 250 acres of the New York Botanical Garden, and several more in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, but picking fruit is strictly forbidden on the gardens’ grounds.
Mr. Farzan’s narrow backyard in Brooklyn’s South Slope neighborhood is a lush, if slightly chaotic, oasis. There are Fuji apples, Meyer lemons, figs, peonies and avocados — although that’s far from a complete census of all that grows there. An arsenal of shovels and rakes stands at attention among an extensive supply of empty pots of varied provenance, including former yogurt tubs and soy milk cartons. When cold weather hits, vulnerable plantings are relocated to Mr. Farzan’s D.I.Y. greenhouse, featuring a shower-curtain roof, an Ikea-bag door and strings of Christmas lights.
The property is also home to a grapevine rescued from outside a neighborhood bistro that closed during the Covid lockdown. There is a tulip that has blossomed for three days a year, every year, for the last 30 years. But there’s no mistaking the star attractions.
After buying his house in 1992, Mr. Farzan specifically sought to plant a native fruit tree. He researched pawpaws at the library and purchased seedlings from a nursery in Oregon, one of only two or three pawpaw sources he could find in the entire country. He had never tasted a pawpaw, but no matter.
“I had no hesitation to order the trees and become a devotee,” he said. “This was exceptionally rewarding for me, to grow something that I couldn’t get anywhere else.”
Those humble seedlings are now trees standing about 30 feet tall. Pawpaw branches have breached the trellis fences on either side of Mr. Farzan’s yard. (The neighbors borrow his clippers to trim them.) The trees have weathered 100-plus-degree summer days, below-zero winter nights, and even Hurricane Sandy — though one of them has listed slightly to one side ever since. Before the storm, he braced the trees together with a support strap that still surrounds them; a birdhouse hangs from it now. A few years ago, a family of mourning doves made their nest among the branches.
Growing pawpaws, even under the best of circumstances, requires patience. The trees take at least three years to produce fruit, sometimes as long as 10. Once their season finally arrives, pawpaws picked too early will never satisfactorily ripen; Mr. Farzan waits until fruit falls on its own. “Some people may say they don’t want to bother with all that,” he said. “Odds are so much against them if they are narrow-minded.”
Mr. Farzan estimated he consumes up to 100 pawpaws in a typical year, some of which he incorporates into omelets, rice, smoothies and other dishes. He gives away another 30 or so to friends, and occasionally sells the fruit that remains — for pickup only, at around $10 apiece.
He acknowledged that the fruit was an acquired taste — assuming one could be persuaded to taste it at all. “Very few people have tried it, and they’re reluctant to, because they say, ‘Well, I haven’t seen it in a supermarket,’” he said.
Mr. Farzan had no intention of starting a business when he planted his pawpaws, but after discovering Etsy in 2018, he began selling pawpaw seeds ($20 for about 30) and already-sprouted seedlings ($45 each). Under the name MintmanGoods, Mr. Farzan has shipped pawpaw seeds to approximately 150 customers across the United States, as well as in Canada, Europe and Africa.
“My trees are spreading around the world,” he said. “It’s a source of pride for me as an American because the pawpaw is a native American tree.”
Mr. Farzan has become something of an evangelist, an active member of seven pawpaw-centric groups on Facebook, where he gladly shares his wisdom with newcomers. Once the plants reach maturity, he says, pawpaw growers will find them to be hardy, naturally resistant to both pests and the effects of climate change, and altogether low maintenance.
Mr. Farzan has yet to meet another local gardener who cultivates pawpaws, but he is eager for the city to embrace its wild roots. “This is a native tree, and New York City should be proud to have it around,” he said. He has repeatedly contacted the Parks Department to inquire about donating pawpaw seedlings to a municipal green space. So far, the department has declined. Dan Kastanis, a Parks Department spokesman, said the agency does accept tree donations, but that it is unable to accommodate all that are put forward; he said it would revisit Mr. Farzan’s “generous offer” in the future. Two pawpaw trees were planted earlier this year at a city-owned community garden in East Harlem.
In the meantime, Mr. Farzan’s self-described “pawpaw mission” forges on. Last week, he donated 14 seedlings to Red Hook Farms, an urban farming and youth-empowerment program in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn. “We’re excited to grow our pawpaw orchard and hopefully one day enjoy with our teen farmers the fruits of this somewhat elusive native,” said Saara Nafici, director of Red Hook Farms.
Mr. Farzan also recently posted on the “Park Slope Together” Facebook group to offer free pawpaw seedlings to local gardeners. So far, more than 20 neighbors have expressed interest, to his delight. With a little luck and a lot of patience, within a few years, Mr. Farzan’s backyard might not host the only pawpaw harvest in town.