By Brian Allnutt
Ilze Sillers, a psychologist living in Versailles, Kentucky, lives on the type of farm that many people only dream about. Her land sits in the middle of horse country, where huge farms with their seemingly endless white or black fences cover the rolling hillsides in a landscape that is a cross between central England and the Ohio River Valley.
For the past two decades, Sillers has been using her slice of heaven to grow pawpaws, a fruit native to the eastern United States but related to the tropical cherimoya with its large obovate leaves.
“I started down there growing grapes,” said Sillers, gesturing to the hillside below the pawpaw orchard. “I devoted 2 acres to them. And what I didn’t like was the constant spraying, because it’s so wet in Kentucky you can’t really grow grapes … without spraying constantly. And I just didn’t like that aspect of it. So I was looking for something that was natural, that didn’t require spraying, that sort of managed on its own. And I’ve loved the pawpaws because of that.”
Pawpaws (Asimina triloba) have grown in popularity recently. Books and magazines tout them as a new food trend; regional brewers, wineries and ice cream makers use them in their products; and consumers are increasingly on the lookout for locally produced foods. However, if public awareness of pawpaws has grown, the number of people who have actually tasted one is still relatively small. “I have more demand for fruit than I can really fulfill,” said Sillers.
Part of the challenge facing pawpaws as a commodity is that for years they were exclusively a wild food; consumers aren’t used to seeing them in markets. However, foraging for the wild fruit has been rather widespread in some areas, especially parts of Appalachia — sometimes referred to as the pawpaw belt — and this cultural memory, even if it’s a distant one, can provide an entry point for growers in and around these areas.
But many people who have eaten wild pawpaws haven’t necessarily enjoyed the experience because there is such a wide variability in the taste of wild fruit. At their best, these oblong, green fruits with a creamy, yellow interior have a sweet, custardy flavor that many compare to a cross between a mango and a banana. Some can be bitter or have off flavors, though. Purists say that pawpaws taste like pawpaws and that any comparison is beneath the fruit’s dignity.
Other difficulties that face those trying to market pawpaws are their relatively short shelf life (a few days if they are not refrigerated) and their short growing season (about six weeks). Groups of growers like the Ohio Pawpaw Growers Association and research institutions like Kentucky State University in Frankfort have been working to develop improved varieties and to refine growing conditions. They hope to turn pawpaws into a crop for small-scale growers looking to grow organically and market to local communities.
Kentucky State has been especially important in helping growers like Sillers get into pawpaws. As the USDA National Clonal Germplasm Repository for Asimina, they grow a number of varieties on their research farm south of Frankfort. On a Monday in early July, the pawpaws here were already large enough to rival the size of many wild fruits and they had at least another month to grow before harvest.
Sheri Crabtree, a pawpaw researcher at Kentucky State, says that the university grows varieties such as ‘Sunflower,’ ‘Atwood,’ ‘Susquehanna,’ ‘Wabash,’ ‘Potomac’ and ‘Shenandoah.’
“There are milder and more intense pawpaw flavors,” said Crabtree. “‘Shenandoah’ and ‘Sunflower’ have kind of a milder flavor that’s a little bit more banana-like. ‘Susquehanna’ has a more intense pawpaw flavor. ‘Atwood’ is a little more mango-like.” Still, Crabtree says that unlike other popular fruits, “There are little nuances of difference, but it’s not like they taste completely different — like a Granny Smith apple and a Red Delicious apple are sweet and sour.”
Dr. Ron Powell, a pawpaw grower in southern Ohio and president of the Ohio Pawpaw Growers Association, stresses that more research needs to be done on different varieties. Field tests are needed to help determine which ones are best for selling fresh or frozen, or as ingredients in beer and prepared foods.
“Unfortunately, a lot of people want to think that one size fits all, and that’s not necessarily the case,” says Powell. However, he does like some of the varieties that Crabtree mentions, including ‘Sunflower,’ ‘Atwood,’ ‘Shenandoah’ and ‘Wabash.’
Sillers emphasizes that it’s very important to propagate improved varieties via grafting.
Although it’s possible to do this oneself by acquiring scion wood and grafting it onto the rootstock of virtually any pawpaw, there are a number of nurseries selling some of the varieties that Kentucky State is using. These include England Nursery, Nolin River Nut Tree Nursery and Stark Brothers. Peaceful Heritage currently sells certified organic plants.
The advantage of acquiring trees that are several years old from a nursery is that young pawpaws like shade, and nurseries will grow them under shade cloth for the first several years, using deep nursery pots to accommodate the plant’s taproot. Growers who start their own pawpaws will need to shade young trees.
Andrew Moore’s excellent book, Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit, mentions a farmer named John Brittain who sows corn around his seedlings to shade them during their first few years. Although pawpaws will grow in the shade — and this is where they are usually found in the wild — they produce best in full sun. However, pawpaw is a potential understory tree for people growing black walnuts, persimmons or sugar maples.
Best Growing Practices
The trees at Kentucky State are planted every 8 to 10 feet, with 18 feet between rows. Sillers designed her orchard using similar spacing, although she says she would prefer to have allowed for 12 feet between trees. The ones on the outside of the orchard are visibly larger, and she says they are more productive and suffer fewer fungal problems, which are the only major pest issues that beset pawpaws.
For the first few years, trees need a regular supply of water. This is especially true of older saplings that have had their taproot disturbed to any degree. But once the plant’s root system is in place, it is essentially self-sufficient in regard to water. Producing this vigorous root system can at first use up a lot of the tree’s energy.
Growers report that trees start to take off after a year or two. Although the time from seed to fruit is usually eight years, Crabtree says that grafted plants will produce three to four years after grafting. Generally, trees will begin to bear when they are around 6 feet tall.
Pawpaws in the wild grow in the fertile bottomlands around rivers and streams. The orchard grower can mimic these conditions with regular additions of fertilizer and organic matter. Kentucky State uses synthetic fertilizers, but has successfully grown trees using a mix of blood, feather and bone meals. Sillers uses the manure from her Gotland ponies, applying it liberally around the base of the plants when they are in bloom in April. This has the additional benefit of attracting flies, which are the tree’s natural pollinators. Kentucky State also benefits from having animals near their orchards
They’ve also tried hand-pollinating, but found that the energy expended didn’t balance out the increase in fruit set. However, for extremely small-scale growers, hand-pollination might make sense. Those who lack livestock or manure might welcome flies by using fish emulsion or other odoriferous fertilizers during flowering.
Another advantage that pawpaws have over other orchard crops is that they require little pruning. Kentucky State prunes their trees back at 7 feet to facilitate branching and to make harvesting easier; otherwise they only prune to remove low branches or to resolve obvious problems like crossing branches.
Sillers hardly prunes her trees at all, which means that she and her family have to use ladders to harvest the highest fruit. She doesn’t mind the extra work, though, since the tops of the trees hold a great deal of pawpaws. Yet maintaining a sizable orchard requires a bit of work. During harvest, which Sillers says lasts about six weeks, she goes out in the morning and at night, pulling any fruit that has begun to turn soft and that shows the chalkyness on its exterior that is a sign of ripeness.
Although some believe that pawpaws are only ripe when they turn brown or black, both Crabtree and Sillers emphasize that ripe fruit should be green or sometimes slightly yellow. Those that are unripe will not ripen off the vine, but slightly ripe fruit or even clusters can be picked and will ripen. Sillers stores her pawpaws in a shed right next to her orchard that she has converted into a cooler with insulation and a CoolBot system, giving her a few extra weeks to get the fruit from field to market.
Sillers doesn’t spray her trees, although some of them bear the marks of the Phyllosticta fungal disease on their leaves and fruit. Kentucky State is trialing sulfur and copper to manage this, but it’s primarily a cosmetic problem. Deer and other animals will occasionally nibble on young shoots, although full-grown trees — and even fruits — don’t seem to attract much attention from animals.
Powell says he has problems with raccoons, but the biggest issue is needing to prune trees that have been damaged by the critters. The only cultural problem at the K-State orchard worth mentioning was cracking caused by the winter sun on the southwest side of the trunks from expanding and contracting in the winter months. In order to prevent this, they painted the bottom of the trunks with a 50/50 solution of white latex paint and water. Organic growers have several options for similar whitewash treatments but should check with their certifier to see what’s acceptable.
Zebra swallowtail caterpillars — which do indeed look like zebras — will feed on the leaves, although this can hardly be described as a problem. Crabtree says that they simply remove the caterpillars from small trees when they see them and place them on bigger ones that can more easily withstand damage.
Right now, prices at a local upscale produce market in Detroit are $8 per pound for pawpaws. Another market in Louisville sells them for $4.49 per pound. Powell says he gets $6 a pound for the ones he sells out of his house. There is an expanding demand for pawpaws and pawpaw products; restaurants and farmers’ markets haven’t been fully exploited as outlets for sales.
For those looking to add perennials that demand a good price and have a varied market, without requiring much in the way of pest control, it seems like pawpaw could be a pretty good bet. There are also potential medicinal benefits from the fruit and other parts of the plant, including the presence of anti-cancer compounds known as Annonaceous acetogenins, that have opened up markets for the fruit and trees abroad, notably in Korea.
Here in the eastern United States, the pawpaw’s biggest selling point might be its connection to our native ecologies and local foodways. As Sillers says, “It’s a meaningful fruit for people from this area.” It’s hard to quantify or put a price on that, but it could go a long way toward establishing pawpaws as a part of the local food scene.
Resource: ATTRA Guide: “Pawpaw-A Tropical Fruit for Temperate Climates.”
This article appeared in the February 2019 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.
Acres U.S.A. magazine is the national journal of sustainable agriculture, standing virtually alone with a real track record — over 45 years of continuous publication. Each issue is packed full of information eco-consultants regularly charge top dollar for. You’ll be kept up-to-date on all of the news that affects agriculture — regulations, discoveries, research updates, organic certification issues, and more.