Native Fruit: Beyond the Pawpaw Patch

9/29/2012 7:00 AM
By Teresa McMinn Southeastern Pa. Correspondent

YORK, Pa. — Paul McCormick was on an educational plant walk about four years ago when he learned about a local fruit he’s since grown to love.

“The wild ones taste like something between a banana and a mango,” he said of a pawpaw. “They’re quite tasty.”

Recently, McCormick, of Windsor Township, York County, Pa., was at a pawpaw tasting hosted by Judy Bono at her shop, The Gardener of the Owl Valley, in Hellam Township, York County, Pa.

Bono, who has hosted the annual event for seven years, said she’s always amazed at the number of folks who’ve never eaten a pawpaw.

The pawpaw is “a Native American fruit” that’s nutritious, has a custard-like texture and, at maturity, is roughly the size of a papaya, she said.

The perennial plant produces tropical-like fruit and grows throughout most of the central and eastern U.S., according to the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service website.

It’s also endangered in New Jersey and threatened in New York, the site states.

A pawpaw tree needs to be about eight years old before it can produce fruit, Bono said.

They don’t need a ton of sunlight,” she said. “Typically they would be found in the woods.”

Bono grows some pawpaws on her seven-acre property that’s preserved by the Farm and Natural Lands Trust of York County, Pa.

At her recent tasting, she served ice cream, salsa, bread and juice she made from pawpaws.

Barbara Marple of Chanceford Township, York County, went to the tasting to sample the pawpaw dishes for the first time.

“I think they’re delicious,” Marple said. “I’m very pleasantly surprised.”

Stephany Sechrist of Windsor Township, York County, Pa., was at the event and recalled searching for pawpaws when she was a kid.

“My grandfather and I used to go down to the country and look for pawpaws,” she said of the southeastern York County area. “It was a treat in the woods when you could just pick them and eat them.”

Bono also featured various varieties of pawpaws she bought from Jim Davis, owner of Deep Run Pawpaw Orchard in Westminster, Carroll County, Md.

Davis has been raising the fruit for nearly 15 years.

“I don’t have to spray for insects or disease,” he said. “They’re naturally resistant to a lot of pests.”

Davis grows six varieties and has more than 1,000 pawpaw trees in his irrigated orchard.

“It’s very low maintenance,” he said of the crop. “I’ll be adding more (varieties) in the future.”

The fruit is growing in popularity among individuals and cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies, he said.

“Every year there just seems to be a little more interest,” Davis said. His orchard sold two tons of pawpaws to wholesale operations this year. “More and more people read about it.”

It’s not easy to farm pawpaws, however.

“If the trees over-produce fruit, over time the tree will die,” he said. “I’m just learning on my own as I go along.”

The season typically lasts only from late August to the first week of October, Davis said.

“When we harvest, it’s a rather tedious process. They either ripen as a single fruit or in clusters,” he said. “You cannot pick it underripe. ... It will not ripen.”

Shipping the fruit can also be tough.

“They’re very perishable, they bruise easily — worse than a banana,” Davis said. He uses large commercial coolers to store the pawpaws. “At 38 degrees they can last about two weeks.”

Davis said he likes the challenges and uniqueness of growing pawpaws.

“Every year is a different year with this fruit,” he said. “There’s not a lot of people growing them.”

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