It was a forgotten, but not forbidden fruit, and it was a revelation. Curiosity enticed Neal Peterson in 1976 at age 26, as he walked along the wooded banks of West Virginia’s Monongahela River, to pick a ripe fruit from a pawpaw tree. 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 with a profound interest in agriculture, would uncover a complicated answer partially buried in American history. Pulled from obscurity by Peterson’s drive over 30 years and the work of university researchers, the pawpaw – a truly American fruit -- is slowly emerging in the marketplace.
Pawpaw history runs deep in North America. It was part of the Native American Indian diet. De Soto’s expedition of 1540 observed pawpaw cultivation. Pawpaws sustained the Lewis and Clark expedition when game was scarce in September of 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 have received. Domesticated crops grown in the U.S. originally derive from ancient centers of agriculture in China, India, Mexico, Ethiopia, Europe, and the Middle East. If the U.S. had been an historic agricultural center, the pawpaw would long ago have been bred and domesticated. Peterson wasn’t immediately certain he could accomplish that sort of pawpaw breeding, but he was convinced the native species had incredible potential and demanded scientific attention.
Resisting the impulse to leap blindly into breeding (and to ensure that he wasn’t reinventing the wheel) Peterson methodically combed through old literature looking for anything on pawpaw research -- with low expectations. He was surprised to uncover a 1916 article published in the Journal of Heredity announcing a Contest for Best Pawpaw. “The journal offered $100 for the best pawpaw – a substantial sum in 1916 worth more than $2,000 today,” Peterson recalls. “The editors were surprised by the quality of fruit that was submitted and felt it was only a matter of time and breeding until pawpaw domestication.” Pecans had only gained commercialization in the 1880s, and blueberry domestication was achieved from 1910 to 1920. Expectation was building in agronomic research and part of that excitement was aimed directly at the pawpaw.
Yet, there was no institution or university that rallied behind pawpaws after the contest. Blueberry breeding was backed by USDA, but pawpaw breeding in the early 20th century was performed by enthusiasts and amateurs, such as G. A. Zimmerman who took up the work after retirement -- impractical given the slow requirements of tree breeding, often taking 30 years. Pawpaws are a soft fruit and not conducive for market transport – an additional roadblock to commercialization. A short shelf life, limited refrigerated shipment, and post-harvest issues kept the market out of reach.
“I was in my 20s and thought I had enough lifespan ahead of me that I could do it, even though my work was self-financed,” Peterson says. He cold-nosed the trail of lost cultivars and tracked down pawpaw sources from historic collections in Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. His most important find was the surviving collection at the Blandy Experimental Farm in Virginia. Starting with 1,500 seedlings from the most promising trees, he narrowed his working choices down to 18 advanced selections after 19 years of evaluation.
Initial trial plots were located at two research stations of the University of Maryland. “You can evaluate a pawpaw variety on a given piece of land, but after you finish, you only know that that variety performs well right there. You have to know how it will perform elsewhere in the U.S. or even the world. You need to do regional variety trials.” Kentucky State University has a pawpaw program dating back to 1993, and Peterson had been cooperating with KSU researchers. “They had their own collection and included my varieties as well. Between KSU and myself, we got 10 different universities to trial pawpaws – from Cornell to Louisiana State University to the University of Oregon.”
Through further evaluation, Peterson narrowed his selections to six varieties: Allegheny, Potomac, Rappahannock, Shenandoah, Susquehanna, and Wabash. “I gave them Native American names to honor their origin as a native tree. Those names are all scenic rivers and pawpaws love to grow around rivers. The time is now to get these trees to the public.” He established a business, Peterson Pawpaws, Harper’s Ferry, W.Va., devoted to propagating and selling those trees.
Trees can reach 12’ to 20’ in height and a superior variety growing in good soil and sunny conditions produces 30 to 40 pounds of fruit on average. Pawpaw trees require good drainage and thrive in silt loam. A tree grown from seed takes seven or eight years to attain fruiting, whereas a grafted tree usually takes four years. “Irrigation is a commercial 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 explains.
Skin stays green as fruit ripens in late August through September and should be picked daily due to staggered maturity. “I think plant geneticists may be able to breed varieties that ripen more quickly and uniformly. It can be tricky picking because there is no color change to the fruit at ripeness – just the green. Picking is done by feel. Gently squeezing a pawpaw to know if it’s ripe takes skill. Basically, there are few visual clues, and it’s not like picking a peach or apple.”
Sheri Crabtree, co-investigator, KSU, College of Agriculture, Food Science & Sustainable Systems, was raised in Kentucky and grew up with pawpaws as “an old, native fruit that’s coming back in popularity. The flesh is orange and the size can reach 2 lbs. Most large varieties can reach a pound, but half a pound is average.”
She says Kentucky growers are meeting pawpaw demand from farmer markets, restaurants, wineries and breweries. “The future looks good for production and I think the market will grow to support more orchards. 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, according to Crabtree. “Pawpaws have a really interesting, tropical flavor. It’s a blend of mango and banana, but different varieties will have a coconut, caramel, pineapple, vanilla or cantaloupe undertone.”
Peterson believes pawpaws are at a seminal stage in reaching conventional crop status in the temperate world. He ran a recent Kickstarter campaign aimed at getting his varieties registered in Europe, and has licensed an EU nursery to produce and market his trees. Demand must be present for farmers to expand orchards, yet pawpaws remain relatively unknown – even in the U.S. However, Peterson says production and awareness have reached the stage of genuine commercial opportunity. “We have a slow growth curve that’s taking place at a natural rate of increase.”
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. Without question, the forgotten fruit is gaining in popularity. “I think the pawpaw is on a steady march and will be recognized as a part of agriculture – the same status that other fruits enjoy. It will just take time. In 30 to 40 years, pawpaws will appear in grocery stores. It’s going to be gradual, but good pawpaw times are coming.”