Pawpaw: America's Forgotten Fruit

April 23, 2016 02:47 AM

Historical fruit is making a return thanks to science

In 1976, at age 26, curiosity enticed Neal Peterson to pick a ripe fruit from a pawpaw tree as he walked along the wooded banks of West Virginia’s Monongahela River. The taste was phenomenal—a soft blend of mango and banana—and it drove home one question: Why was a fruit this good hidden in the woods and not found in a grocery store?

Peterson, a plant genetics major at West Virginia University, would uncover a complicated answer partially buried in American history. Led by Peterson’s drive for more than 30 years and the work of university researchers, the pawpaw is slowly emerging in the marketplace.

      Pawpaw is slowly building a new        market, says Neal Peterson,
    Harper’s Ferry, W.Va.

The fruit’s history starts in 1540 when Hernando de Soto’s expedition observed pawpaw cultivation. Pawpaws sustained the Lewis and Clark expedition when game was scarce in September 1806. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and many other founders were fond of pawpaw fruit. The tree’s natural range covers a huge portion of the U.S., roughly from Chicago to New Orleans; eastern Kansas to the Chesapeake Bay; and northern Florida up to northern New Jersey.

Yet, the pawpaw has never gained the attention commercial tree fruits receive. Peterson was convinced the native species had incredible potential and demanded scientific attention.

“I was in my 20s and thought I had enough lifespan ahead of me to do it, even though my work was self-financed,” Peterson says. He tracked down pawpaw sources from historic collections in Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. 

Starting with 1,500 seedlings, he narrowed them down to 18 advanced selections after 19 years of evaluation. Through further work, Peterson narrowed his selections and established a business, Peterson Pawpaws, devoted to propagating and selling six pawpaw varieties.

Trees can reach 12' to 20' in height, and a superior variety growing in good soil and sunny conditions produces 30 lb. to 40 lb. of fruit. Pawpaw trees require good drainage and thrive in silt loam soil. A tree grown from seed takes seven or eight years to attain fruiting; a grafted tree usually takes four years. 

“Irrigation is a necessity because a drought in the wrong part of the summer ruins a crop. The trees require weeding, but not spraying—too few pests,” Peterson says.

The flesh is orange, and most large varieties can reach 1 lb.

Most pawpaw demand comes from farmer markets, restaurants, wineries and breweries, says Sheri Crabtree, co-investigator, Kentucky State University, College of Agriculture, Food Science & Sustainable Systems. 

“The future looks good for production,” Crabtree says. “Right now, it’s small scale and localized, but it can grow because of the value-added market potential.” 

Ice cream, yogurt and jam also hold great pawpaw potential and don’t depend on shelf life, Crabtree adds. 

While local and farmer’s market demand is already thriving, the need remains for continued breeding to select for superior plant qualities such as easier transport and thicker skin. 

“I think the pawpaw is on a steady march and will be recognized as a part of agriculture—the same status other fruits enjoy. It will just take time,” Peterson says. “In 30 to 40 years, pawpaws will appear in grocery stores. It’s going to be gradual, but good pawpaw times are coming.”  

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