This story also appears in our University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources’ Agricultural Research Center Magazine. Stop by your local Research Center to pick up a copy! You can view the magazine online by clicking here: Road to Discovery.
Annonaceae is a botanical family, often referred to as the custard apple family, made up primarily of flowering plants located in tropical regions. The pawpaw is part of that family.
The pawpaw, a native tree fruit, grows wild throughout most of the eastern U.S., from Kansas to the east coast and from Florida to Michigan.
“For whatever reason, the pawpaw is the only temperate zone species in a botanical family comprised mainly of tropical fruits,” said Mike Gold, interim director of the University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry. “Like their tropical cousins, pawpaw trees have a large, deep green leaf with a pointed drip tip. The flowers are pollinated by various species of flies and beetles attracted to the rank smell of the flowers. Pawpaw fruits grow in odd-shaped clusters. They’re definitely unique.”
Pawpaw is not typically grown by farmers. A collection of different pawpaw cultivars, selected for large fruit size, yield and superior taste, is currently being renovated at the Horticulture and Agroforestry Research Center (HARC).
Ken Hunt, a retired research scientist with the Center for Agroforestry, planted the first pawpaws at HARC in 1999. HARC is currently home to a pawpaw cultivar study, which originally contained 10 different named cultivars. The Center also works with Kentucky State University, home to the national germplasm repository for pawpaws, and has added two newly released cultivars – ‘Atwood’ and ‘Benson’ – to the collection at HARC.
“There aren’t too many individuals planting grafted pawpaw cultivars,” Gold said. “Pawpaws grow wild as a small understory tree that produces a small-sized fruit weighing less than a tenth of a pound. We’ve found, through our research and the work of other researchers, who grafted, open-grown pawpaw cultivars yield much better and produce bigger fruit. In the wild, fruiting can be hit or miss, and you often find peanut-shaped fruit that weighs less than a tenth of a pound. As a grower you want consistent, heavy annual production of great-tasting football-shaped fruit that weigh up to half a pound each.”
Sunlight is key for pawpaws to reach their potential. Gold said in the open, the trees can grow up to 25 feet in height. In Missouri, pawpaw cultivars ripen from August through early October.
“When you go to pick pawpaws, you want to pick them while they’re still on the tree,” Gold said. “If they’re still as hard as a rock, don’t pick them. When they have a little squeeze to them, that’s when it’s time to harvest. To get the best fruits, you have to constantly revisit your orchard. If the fruits fall and lay on the ground, the critters get to them immediately.”
Pawpaws are fully ripe, or in “primetime,” for only four or five days. Gold said it doesn’t do any good to pick the fruit early and let it ripen. Once the fresh, ripe fruit gets beyond the four- or five-day period, the pawpaw fruit becomes overripe and aren’t nearly as desirable.
Gold said there are a number of ways to enjoy pawpaws. Pawpaws can be used like bananas in smoothies, bread, muffins, yogurt and ice cream. Gold said he enjoys eating pawpaws directly from the freshly harvested fruit, scooped out like a custard.
“The biggest difference between a pawpaw and a banana is that it’s very easy to peel and enjoy a banana,” he said. “There are no seeds, no mess and the peel comes off really easily. In contrast, the pawpaw is more labor intensive. You have to carefully pull the skin off, dig out the seeds (or spit them out) and then enjoy the custardy fruit. Difficulty in peeling and the presence of about a dozen rather large watermelon-shaped seeds are two factors that have limited the pawpaw from really taking off commercially.”
The biggest commercial hurdle for the fresh fruit is a very short period of peak ripeness. There is a market for the pawpaw pulp, and if the pulp is frozen, it gives the fruit a longer life. The pawpaws grown at HARC have been turned into ice cream, through MU’s Buck’s Ice Cream, and used during several events including the annual Missouri Chestnut Roast.
“The flavor is really nothing that your temperate fruit palette can describe,” Gold said. “We hosted events at the Columbia Farmer’s Market with free samples of pawpaws. For those who liked it, which was the majority, it was difficult to describe. Flavors such as vanilla, mango, custard, banana and pineapple were used to describe the taste. It’s a complex flavor.”
Regardless of flavor, everyone can agree the pawpaw fruit is very rich.
“I like to call it the cheesecake of fruit,” Gold said.
HARC’s pawpaws are grown without pesticides, as pests usually aren’t an issue.
“Not too many pests bother them,” Gold said. “In the fall, there is a chance that the critters will get to them before you do. We have actually never sprayed the pawpaws. We’ve had some leaf roller insect damage but that’s been the extent of it. So far, our pawpaws have come through unscathed.
“Once established, they are not too hard to grow. As long as you do some routine maintenance work and keep an eye on them, they really take care of themselves.”
There are many different pawpaw cultivars and each one is unique.
“Fruits vary in color from yellow to golden,” Gold said. “The textures and flavors also differ. There is a lot of variation. People definitely have their preferences.”
HARC is currently working to bring awareness and find marketing opportunities for pawpaws. The first step is to do market research – and find out how much the general public knows about pawpaws. The Center recently completed a national consumer survey about pawpaw. The survey was distributed to individuals who are members of the North American Pawpaw Growers Association; attendees of the 2016 International Pawpaw Conference in Frankfurt, Kentucky; and participants at the 2017 Ohio Pawpaw Festival in Albany, Ohio.
“Honestly, most individuals don’t know much about pawpaws,” Gold said. “We want to showcase consumer preferences and the benefits of growing pawpaw as a high-value, native specialty fruit with multiple avenues of commercialization of value-added products. There is a lot to be done to optimize harvesting and fruit processing.”
Long used by Native Americans, the pawpaw also has a long history in the United States and was mentioned in the journals of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark as they made their trip up the Missouri River following the Louisiana Purchase.
“We want do what we can to help establish the pawpaw industry, through cultivar trials, market and consumer research and outreach,” Gold said. “We’re excited about the possibilities.”