America’s Biggest Fruit That Most People Have Never Heard Of

11/9/2013 7:00 AM
By Dick Wanner Reporter

HOLTWOOD, Pa. — If you would stalk the wild pawpaw around Lancaster County, Pa., in late September, you would need just three things: a knife to cut the fruit in half, a spoon to eat it, and a bucket to carry the fruit you don’t consume on the spot. And if you don’t like getting sticky, you might want to pack a wet washcloth.

Ted Weeden led a group of wild edibles enthusiasts on a pawpaw hunt at the Holtwood Recreation Park in Holtwood, Pa., at the end of September. It was hard for the uninitiated to see the trees, but once Weeden pointed out the pawpaw’s distinctive leaf pattern and gangly branching habit, they were easy to spot. Another big clue was pawpaws on the ground. The fruits were potato shaped but with yellowish-orange skin, and ranged in size from a new potato to a medium-sized baking spud.

Weeden’s group of a dozen or so were members of the Backyard Fruit Growers association, which began in 1990 with a few Lancaster County members and which now has some 350 members from a much larger area.

Weeden’s first encounter with a pawpaw was just 13 years ago on a BYFG tour of Lancaster County pawpaw hotspots. He liked the fruit so much that he now has 60 pawpaw trees on his 2.1-acre property in Harleysville, Pa., which is about a two-hour drive east of Holtwood. He also has 15 European pear trees, 15 Asian pears, a dozen cherry trees and a few apples. He’d have more apple trees if he could keep his resident voles from girdling them in the winter.

But he has a special passion for pawpaws. He has 12 cultivars in his compact orchard, some which he has developed himself.

The pawpaw is a member of the Annonaceae family of mostly tropical fruit-bearing trees and shrubs. “Custard apple” is another name for plants in that family, and like its cousins, the pawpaw has big seeds and lots of them.

Weeden’s pawpaw breeding goal is a large fruit with more pulp and fewer seeds.

Don Gallagher, a Lititz. Pa., BYFG member and a serious pawpaw enthusiast, didn’t bring a bucket to Weeden’s tour, but he did bring a spoon. “Pudding in a pouch” is his word for pawpaw gastronomy.

Dip your toe only slightly in the river of pawpaw lore and you will find many attempts to describe its taste. It tastes like a cross between a banana-and-something. Or a peach-and-something. Or a mango-and-something.

But a pawpaw tastes like a pawpaw, the way a banana tastes like a banana, a peach tastes like a peach and a mango tastes like a mango. The taste stands on its own merits.

Pawpaws are native to much of North America, with trees growing from the Canadian border to northern Florida and west to Nebraska. They are the largest North American fruit. Yet, they are unfamiliar because people don’t get into the woods as much as they used to, and because pawpaws don’t travel or store well.

Kentucky State University is the official USDA gene bank for pawpaws, and maintains a pawpaw website online at www.pawpaw.kysu.edu. The site contains information about the fruit’s history and propagation, recipes, and upbeat messages about its market potential.

Weeden isn’t quite on board with the marketing message. For one thing, pawpaws don’t keep well. A fruit that tumbles from the tree on its own accord might be best consumed on the spot. A pawpaw taken with a fruit picker might take a week to ripen; or if it’s picked too early, it might not ripen at all. Fruit shaken from the tree might peak in two or three days, but Weeden has had some success with pawpaws he’s refrigerated.

And when you get right down to it, a perfectly ripe pawpaw may not have lots of visual appeal. For now, Weeden feels buyers for the fresh fruit will have to search for it at their local farmers markets, and they’ll need to develop an appreciation for its beauty spots.

There perhaps is more hope for pawpaw as an ingredient in other foods. Kentucky State is working with growers and processors to develop products like ice cream, frozen pulp and bakery products.

At the annual Ohio Pawpaw festival you can buy pawpaw curry puffs, chicken sate with pawpaw peanut sauce, vegetable pawpaw noodles, pawpaw chili, pawpaw cookies, pawpaw ice cream and half-a-dozen varieties of pawpaw beer. The 2014 event will be held in Albany, Ohio, September 12-14, and you can find more information at www.ohiopawpawfest.com.

Pawpaws flower over a six-to-eight-week period in the spring, according to Weeden, which means they take six to eight weeks to ripen in the fall. That’s a decided plus, he feels, for any grower with a steady market.

The long harvest season was also a plus for those Native Americans who made pawpaws a staple of their late summer and early fall diets. Pawpaws are loaded with nutrition. They have more protein and fat than most other fruits and they’re chock full of vitamins, minerals and fiber. Kentucky State has a table listing the fruit’s nutrients but, according to Weeden, the KSU measurements included the skin, which most people don’t eat. He said the university is working on a new set of numbers which will not include the skin.

Weeden obviously can’t eat the output of 16 pawpaw trees, so he shares the fruit and sells it to lots of people. Some of them reported allergic reactions. So, this past season, Weeden tried an experiment, with himself as guinea pig. Every day, for weeks, he ate 600 grams of pawpaw flesh.

That’s about 1.3 pounds per day of pawpaw.

“I felt fine,” Weeden said. “No difference at all in my health.”

The only change he observed was the clearing up of a mild skin condition he had noticed at the beginning of his pawpaw diet.

Dick Wanner can be reached at rwanner.eph@lnpnews.com, or by phone at 717-419-4703.


----SIDEBAR------------

So you want to grow pawpaws . . .

Ted Weeden sells custom-grafted one-to-two-year-old pawpaw trees from his home in Harleysville, Pa. He uses a hardy, fast-growing root stock with scion wood from cultivars that have a high pulp-to-seed ratio. Trees can be picked up in April and cost about $20.

He experienced a lot of grafting failures before he found the key to success, Weeden said. Unlike many other trees, whose roots remain viable during winter months, pawpaw tree roots go dormant. Using pawpaw rootstocks dug up after a thaw or two dramatically increased his grafting success.

And because pawpaw roots go dormant in the winter, Weeden recommends spring planting for new trees. Although it’s often considered an under-story tree that likes plenty of water, Weeden said pawpaws can thrive even on well-drained slopes with southern exposures.

Weeden mulches his trees heavily with wood chips. He doesn’t like the colored mulch that comes from garden centers because it breaks down too quickly. Leaves are not a good mulch for pawpaws because a heavy leaf cover is a great environment for mice. He’s a big fan of pine needles. Pawpaws love the acid provided by pine needles and, unlike some other mulches, they decompose from the bottom up, which discourages mice.

Heavy mulch and plenty of water, especially in the first year or two, will put the beginning grower on the way to good, healthy trees, Weeden said.


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8/22/2014 | Last Updated: 4:45 PM