In 1541, while pushing deep into an untamed landscape, the Hernando de Soto expedition found Native Americans cultivating pawpaws. His report is the earliest documentation of the nation’s largest indigenous edible fruit.
Now, some 470 years later, the largely forgotten pawpaw is being positioned for international production. That’s largely due Neal Peterson, a dedicated pawpaw breeder in rural West Virginia.
How did Peterson come upon pawpaws?
“It was a bit strange given that I grew up in southern West Virginia and loved being out in the woods as a teenager. That’s kind of typical for those of us who grew up in Appalachia. I grew up learning about all the birds and plant, trees and wildlife.
“So, I knew the pawpaw tree but I never ate the fruit. That didn’t happen until 1975 when I was about 26 years old, a graduate student studying plant genetics. At the same time, I was also a lab instructor for an ecology course. It was September and I took my students to the arboretum down by the river. It so happened that pawpaws were ripe and I tried one.
‘What a revelation! The fruit was so much better than what I’d expected. To me, the flavor was comparable to everything from apricots to apples to peaches. Immediately, I thought, ‘why is this not in the grocery store?’”
The answers were quick to come by.
“First, it wouldn’t be in the stores if there were no orchards. And, in reality, as good as the pawpaw I was eating was, it couldn’t stand up to apples and peaches because it had too many seeds.”
But the germ of an idea had been planted in Peterson’s mind. “Farmers know that all the crops they grow were once wild species and over the eons people domesticated them. I figured, ‘wow, this species has so much potential and needs to be domesticated. Of course, that means plant breeding but maybe I can do it.’”
And he’s been pursuing that goal ever since.
“I had the idea and was paying attention to the scientific method. But it isn’t just the method itself but scholarship, as well. The professors hammer into your head that before you begin such a project you must know what others have done. That’s the starting point.”
Peterson opened the library doors not expecting much.
“Instead, I was shocked to find an article from 1916 in the Journal of Heredity. That’s a scientific refereed journal and a nationwide contest had been held looking for the best pawpaws. They drew in entries from Kansas to Maryland. Pawpaws grow in the South but almost all the entries were from the Midwest. The scientists reported that the material shipped in was much better than they’d expected. They were very positive that pawpaws had a future as an orchard crop.
“This was happening at the same time that blueberries were being domesticated in New Jersey. Also, the interest in pecans had been surging since the late 1800s. This was a time in America when people believed such things were possible.
“Regardless, I continued to search the library and basically found many named varieties of pawpaws around 1920. There were a few people – particularly a Dr. Zimmerman – who were doing pawpaw breeding. However, the problem was Dr. Zimmerman and the others became very serious in breeding pawpaws only after they retired. They figured they had all this extra time to devote to this pursuit.
“But when you’re retired and are undertaking tree breeding there really isn’t that much time. I mean you’re looking at decades to make progress. So, unfortunately, they died too soon and their collections died with them. There were no scientific heirs to take over.”
Then 28 years old, Peterson figured he had plenty of time to get the work done. “That doesn’t mean I didn’t have my own pitfalls and drawbacks. There wasn’t an institution willing to support such work. It’s kind of hard to convince people that what we need is another fruit when we already have such wonderful ones.
“So, I did this as a hobby for over 30 years. I was limited to how many seedlings I could grow and compare. I ended up growing nearly 1,500 seedlings. In all honesty, if you have a university behind you that number could have been 10,000.”
Peterson reckons that amateur pawpaw enthusiasts -- particularly in the 1950s and 1960s -- probably grew 20 seedlings to compare. “It’s a game of numbers and you need to grow thousands to produce that diamond.”
He didn’t just go out in the woods and pick up pawpaw seeds. “I was fortunate that all that work had been done in the early 1900s. But I had to track down those historic collections in the hope that something had survived. It’s all about the genes and germplasm. You have to stop with the best and go from there -- whether it’s cattle, rice or cotton.”
In some cases those collections were gone. In other cases, the collections had been grafted. “That’s because with pawpaws that’s how the material propagated if there’s no root cuttings. We’ve tried that numerous times and it doesn’t work.
“With the grafts, the top of the tree will eventually die as it ages and the roots will resprout. But when that happens, the graft is gone.”
So, what Peterson found was rather limited. The best collection he found was at the Blandy Experimental Farm in northern Virginia. “They had about 50 trees in two rows back in the woods. The material was really high quality that had been started from seed.
“I germinated the seeds, grew them up until they were flowering and then evaluated them for three years. It might have been better to go with five years but I was young and eager to get results.”
Eventually, he came up with 18 promising selections. “I passed those on to around 10 universities for regional variety trials. Those trials also included 10 current varieties that were available from the nursery trade or from amateurs that were exchanging with one another.
“But you’d read the catalogues on pawpaws and the description would be something like, ‘a large fruit with good flavor.’ That’s it. I mean if it’s large, please provide a range of ounces. If it has good flavor, give me some more adjectives.”
That led Peterson to pay very close attention to the variations of the varieties he was raising. “I’d weigh the fruit, the seeds within the fruit and get a ratio. You’re not going to have a seedless any more than you’ll have a seedless peach.
“That was a new step for comparing pawpaws and it was very illuminating. That’s because the wild pawpaws -- and I used some in my nursery -- can range typically from 15 percent seed to 25 percent seed. My best pawpaws were about 4 percent seed and that makes a huge difference when eating them. It’s a big deal to cut through a pawpaw and not hit a seed. With a wild one it’s virtually guaranteed that won’t happen.”
Where is the best place to look for wild pawpaws?
“Pawpaws are very wide-ranging across most of eastern America. Native pawpaws can be found in 26 states. They’re everywhere from southern Michigan to New Orleans and from the Chesapeake Bay out to the Great Plains.
“They really like moisture and mostly can be found close to creeks and rivers. That’s not exclusively so but it’s a good bet. They don’t like swampy ground. If you’re not out in the woods, you won’t notice them.”
The fruit’s ripening date depends on your latitude. “I’m in eastern West Virginia along the Potomac River and our pawpaw harvest season begins at the end of August and runs to the first of October. As you go south, though, the season begins sooner. In North Carolina, for example, they typically ripen in mid-August. Around Memphis they might be ripening in early August.”
Recently, Peterson has been running a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for trademarks on his pawpaw varieties. The goal was reached in mid-February and Peterson has big plans.
“Someday, people will know what pawpaws are and they’ll buy them from the grocery store. But we’re still in the early stages.
“Now, in places like Germany and Japan the fruit is barely known. But interest is building. Enthusiasts from Germany, in particularly, have emailed me for years wanting to buy trees. I can’t ship trees to Europe -- there are customs regulations and the like.”
However, a few years ago, a German nursery approached Peterson wanting a license to raise and sell my trees. “I went over to meet them, negotiated contract terms and all of that. They’re ready to roll and they plan sell across most of Europe and where they don’t sell they’ll sublicense to other nurseries.
“The hang-up is we don’t have protection against fraudulent sales of the same trees. We need trademarks of my tree names -- named after wonderful American rivers with Indian names (Shenandoah, Potomac, and Wabash among them) -- in the European Union. That would provide the nursery with protection and prevent another from selling some random pawpaw under the same names. And there is also a nursery in Japan interested in my trees.”
Those trademarks cost many thousands of dollars. “So, we began the Kickstarter campaign to cover the governmental fees and legal expenses. We reached our goal of $20,000 and will be sending a check to the lawyer.”
What about pawpaw expansion in the United States?
“The interest has continued to grow. There are now seven nurseries licensed to sell my trees. I receive a royalty on the trees sold. I don’t expect the industry to explode but it has shown very steady growth.
“There are several firms that sell the fruit: Earthy Delights in Michigan and Heritage Foods USA in New York. The fruit comes from a nursery in Maryland and it’s very high quality. Most of the trees in that orchard are my varieties.”
How long does it take to get fruit once a tree is planted?
“When planting an orchard, the optimal size of a tree is between two and three feet. Usually, the first sizable production you can harvest comes in the fourth year. There may be a smattering of fruit in the third year.
“People want to know how they can keep the fruit. The fruit is perishable and once they’re ripe they can be kept refrigerated for about a week. When harvesting, they’ll be picked several days before ripening. Those can be refrigerated for three weeks. You can take them out and give them time to go ahead and finish ripening.
“People also want to know what they can do with pawpaws other than eating them fresh. The flesh is very soft. The firmer ones have a consistency kind of like an avocado. They make an incredible ice cream and cheesecake.
“It may interest your readers to know that deer don’t care for the fruit. They won’t eat the bark or the leaves. Deer are curious creatures and might take a nibble of the fruit but they don’t like it. On the other hand, once a pawpaw gets to a certain size, bucks do like to mark them. They’ll use their antlers to strip them down.”