Every September for the past 25 years, thousands of people have descended on a field in southeastern Ohio to celebrate North America’s largest native edible tree fruit: the papaya. With creamy yellow flesh that tastes like a cross between a mango and a banana, papayas are eaten raw, worked into sauces and chutneys, or brewed into beer at the Ohio Pawpaw Festival, one celebration at a time. the flavor of the fruit and its history in Appalachia. .
This year, more people than ever came to experience the plant, crowding around a cooking demonstration to watch local chefs whip up papaya salsa and even buy seedlings to plant in their gardens. A few dozen people gathered under a white tent to hear Brian Koscho, an Ohio-based artist and creator of an Appalachian history podcast, talk about the plant’s native roots. The papayas, he said, have “an impact both here in this zone, but also far, far beyond.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down agricultural supply chains, interest in local foods skyrocketed, and papaya quickly emerged as a tasty symbol of a more resilient food system. Known in some circles as the “hipster banana,” the fist-sized green fruit has made its way into Brooklyn rooftop gardens, bar cocktail lists, and national magazines and producers. of amateur fruit in California, well outside of its native range. The industry has expanded from foragers and a handful of independent growers selling their fruit at farmers’ markets to a growing number of small farms in states from West Virginia to Massachusetts.
But just as this fruit is finding its place in the growing local food movement, it is under threat from a changing climate and more extreme weather. Plant biologists at the University of Georgia recently discovered that while rising global temperatures will open up new areas for papayas to grow, these changes will likely happen too quickly for wild plants to adapt.
“It’s not just more warming – it’s also more temperature extremes,” said Sheri Crabtree, a papaya researcher at Kentucky State University, as she reflects on the various challenges for the future of the plant. Papayas flower about two weeks earlier in the spring than they did decades ago, but temperature fluctuations can cause hard frosts after flowering, leading to crop loss.
Papayas currently grow in more than two dozen states, ranging from the eastern United States to parts of Nebraska, Kansas and Texas. But their heart is Appalachia, where they’ve been mentioned in songs and incorporated into regional recipes for generations; at least six states have named cities after the fruit. Prior to British colonization, the indigenous peoples of this region harvested the fruits of the papaya and used the tree’s bark as building materials. tribes such as the Shawnee who were forced to move west during the 19th century as Americans sought to settle their lands have since planted papayas on reservations in Oklahoma, now a link with ancestral ways of life.
Plants have a wide range of strategies to adapt to climate change, from developing drought resistance to migrating to new areas, through pollinators and seed-dispersing animals. But these adaptations take time – and establishing new populations is particularly difficult for papaya, whose pollinators, such as flies, beetles, opossums, foxes and raccoons, do not usually travel long distances.
The University of Georgia researchers also found that due to low genetic diversity, it is unclear whether papayas that manage to establish themselves elsewhere will have the same type and quality of edible fruit as those. that we know today. A 2015 report from the US Forest Service came to a similar conclusion.
Papayas need a cold spell for their seeds to germinate in the spring; towards the southern end of their range they are unlikely to get this as temperatures rise. In most places, however, growers expect plants to thaw, flower and mature earlier in the year, forcing them to plan their harvest times accordingly. Ron Powell, the former president of the North American Pawpaw Growers’ Association, or NAPGA, said he’s already noticed changes: His grove of about 500 trees is maturing weeks earlier than usual in some years. And a drought that hit his southwestern Ohio region in late July reduced his crop to about a third of its normal size.
Papayas are on display at the 2021 Ohio Pawpaw Festival. Diana Kruzman/Grist
Foragers, which still make up a significant portion of harvesters, could be especially vulnerable as climate change affects where papayas are found in the wild, said Chris Chmiel, Ohio Pawpaw Festival founder and fruit grower. . The plants prefer low elevations and moist, nutrient-rich soils along streams or rivers, a habitat that has already been diminished by large-scale urbanization and agriculture in much of the Midwest and Appalachia. And climate change is expected to bring both more extreme droughts and heavy rains to the region, which is not good for papayas, Chmiel said.
Harvests can of course vary from year to year, Chmiel said, but he has also noticed changes recently, with a third of his trees dying. He says he doesn’t know why it happened, but noted that heavy rain could have been a factor. He’s working with scientists at Ohio State University to figure it out.
“We had a lot of rain events [where] instead of getting two inches, we get four or six inches,” Chmiel said. “And a few years ago we had a spring where it rained nonstop for six weeks. And I look at that, and I think those papaya trees were really stressed.”
Still, producers like Powell aren’t too worried, at least in the short term. The heart of the papaya range in Appalachia will most likely remain suitable into the next century, while strategies such as irrigation can help avoid the impact of more frequent droughts.
Researchers are also working on breeding new varieties of plants that can better adapt to changing conditions, Crabtree said. His lab at Kentucky State University is developing varieties that bloom later, to avoid damage from late spring frosts, and ripen earlier, to accommodate a shorter growing season in more northern climates. Both of these could help growers cope with the impacts of climate change on their crops.
“I think they’ll survive,” Powell said. “They will probably adapt better than us to climate change.”
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