The native fruit you haven't heard of

The native fruit you haven't heard of
Thanks to CFAES, that could change
(Matt Davies, an assistant CFAES professor, is helping spearhead a study  to encourage more pawpaw cultivation in Ohio. (Photo: John Rice, CFAES)
(Matt Davies, an assistant CFAES professor, is helping spearhead a study to encourage more pawpaw cultivation in Ohio. (Photo: John Rice, CFAES)

By Alayna DeMartini

You might not have heard of a pawpaw. Lots of people haven’t.

Though they grow on trees native to Ohio, pawpaw fruit keeps a low profile. You won’t find it on store shelves nor at many farmers markets.

“A few years ago I mentioned pawpaws and people looked at me like I was talking about a relative,” said Joe Boggs.

Boggs is hoping that will eventually change. He’s an educator with Ohio State University Extension, which has launched Marketing and Orchard Resource Efficiency (MORE) Ohio Pawpaw, a statewide, grant-funded initiative to help growers produce and market high-quality pawpaw fruit. OSU Extension is the outreach arm of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

Even if you’ve never seen a pawpaw, let alone tasted one, that craft beer you just had might have been brewed with the tropical fruit. Owners of some Ohio microbreweries have discovered that the sweetness of pawpaw makes a fine addition to beer. The fruit’s mild flavor does not mask the taste and aroma of the hops and barley, making pawpaw beer one of the best-selling beers in at least one pub in Athens County.

The light green fruit ripens to about the size of a potato. (Photo: Getty Images)

For beer and other uses, raising pawpaws could become another way for farmers across the state to boost their income, particularly in the economically depressed southern and eastern regions of the state. There, the fruit grows abundantly in the wild, having adapted to climate and soil conditions that limit the crops farmers can produce.

Light green on the outside and yellow inside, a ripe pawpaw is about the size of a large potato. It tastes a little like banana, mango, and pineapple, and it can be soft and mushy like an avocado. Some call it “custard on trees.” Large oval-shaped black seeds have to be nudged out of a pawpaw before you can eat it.

Although the fruit is not widely known, there’s a pocket of pawpaw fans in southern Ohio, where an annual festival offers pawpaw gelato, chutney, salsa, wine, and beer.

“I liked pawpaws a lot better the second time I tried them,” said Sarah Francino, a CFAES master’s degree student who has tasted and tested many varieties to try to help Ohio farmers determine the best ones to raise and sell. Francino works for MORE Ohio Pawpaw.

If you’re not keen on how pawpaws tastes, you still might be drawn to the trees for their bright yellow color in fall. “If you let them grow in the open in full sun, they form a beautiful pyramid,” Francino said.

“If you ever want to grow a money tree, this is it. Right now, the market is there”Brad Bergefurd

Though the demand for fresh and processed pawpaw is strong, the supply is limited in Ohio because prospective growers don’t know enough about either growing or selling the product to invest in trying, said Brad Bergefurd, horticulture specialist with OSU Extension.

Bergefurd, along with Matt Davies, an assistant professor with CFAES, is leading MORE Ohio Pawpaw, which will offer farmers and nurseries the know-how to establish productive pawpaw orchards and find markets for their fruit. A second grant-funded study will focus on generating a list of best management practices for pawpaw orchards and will help determine which qualities in pawpaw make it suitable to sell.

“We want to provide unbiased research-based information so farmers can make the best management decisions and maybe cash in on this crop,” Bergefurd said.

Bergefurd, Davies, Francino, and others with OSU Extension, are evaluating new and traditional pawpaw varieties, nursery propagation, irrigation, fertility, insect and disease control methods, food safety, and marketing techniques. They are also studying ways to improve the productivity of wild pawpaw patches found throughout Ohio’s forests.

A pawpaw orchard can produce an annual turnover of $15,000 per acre for fresh fruit, $30,000 per acre for frozen pulp, and $5,000 an acre for seed, according to the Ohio Pawpaw Growers Association.  

“If you ever want to grow a money tree, this is it,” Bergefurd said. “Right now, the market is there. As long as the farmer does a good job in establishing markets, the potential is there.”

The pawpaw was named Ohio's official native fruit in 2009. (Photo: CFAES)

But raising pawpaw does come with challenges, from its short shelf life to its shade-loving tendency, which can create a challenge when establishing an orchard in the open sunlight.

The time it takes pawpaws to go from ready to rotting can be just a few days.

“They ripen, then before you know it, they’re on the ground and insects are eating them,” Boggs said.

Since they flower in early April, the blossoms risk freeze and frost injury.

And wildlife devours them—deer, raccoons, opossums, anything that climbs up trees.

“They can strip your entire tree overnight,” Bergefurd said.

“My goal was to collect and try as many varieties as I could locate.”Ron Powell

So while pawpaws hold a lot of potential, growers will need to figure out ways to protect them. And raising pawpaws is not like raising corn or soybeans: You can’t use a combine to harvest them or a tractor to fertilize them. They have to be harvested and pruned by hand.

“It’s a lot of work,” Bergefurd said.

Ron Powell knows that firsthand. On his farm in Adams County on the far southern tip of Ohio, Powell grows 100 different varieties of pawpaws.

“I do not claim I have an orchard,” he said.  

From the number of trees he grows, it sure seems that way: About 500 trees spread across 50 acres.

“My goal was to collect and try as many varieties as I could locate,” Powell said.

Pawpaw flowers appear in early spring as beautiful blossoms. (Photo: CFAES)

He sells most of his crop to the owner of a microbrewery in Bloomington, Indiana.

When he and his wife first started growing pawpaw trees in 1999, they gave away most of the fruit and processed and froze up to 100 pounds of pulp a year.  

“It’s not going to sell itself overnight,” Powell said. “You’re going to have to market it. You’re going to have to have people taste it.”

Since a lot of people have never done that, a farmer getting into raising pawpaws will have to spread the word— and samples— of the fruit, which is high in potassium, vitamin C, and other antioxidants.

“I don’t think we’ve really looked at the full range of taste, texture, and uses that pawpaws have to offer,” Powell said. “I think we’ve just scratched the surface.”