An orchard specializes in pawpaws

The pawpaw, the largest edible fruit native to the United States, is gaining a new interest among chefs and the local food movement.

By , Carroll County Times/AP

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    Jim Davis surveys his pawpaw trees on his five-acre Deep Run Pawpaw Orchard in Union Mills, Md.
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The air at Deep Run Pawpaw Orchard carries the faint aroma of banana and mango. Inside the walk-in cooler where the harvested pawpaws are stored, the scent is much stronger, sweeter — so powerful that you can almost taste their tropical flavor, reminiscent of banana, mango, pineapple, and custard.

Hidden in the hills of northern Westminster, Jim and Donna Davis have 5 acres with about 1,000 pawpaw trees, making them one of the largest, if not the largest, pawpaw orchard in the country.

Many people may have never heard of a pawpaw, but it is the largest edible fruit native to the United States, Mr. Davis says. It was cultivated by American Indians, nourished early settlers and passed down through generations of some families, he says, but it is gaining a new interest as well among chefs and the local food movement.

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"People either like them or they don't," Ms. Davis says. "But the people who like them are passionate about them, I suppose because it takes so much to grow them, and they have that delicate flavor. It's kind of a cult thing."

Jim purchased the farm in 1996, and was introduced to the idea of a pawpaw orchard by former county extension agent Tom Ford. Mr. Ford put him in touch with Neal Peterson, a plant geneticist enthralled with pawpaws who was looking for different sites to do some experimental plantings and data collection using multiple pawpaw varieties.

"I've always been interested in plants and horticulture," Jim says, so he was excited to give them a try. Mr. Peterson was able to offer some guidance, but much about the fertilizing, pruning, and irrigation needs of the plant are still being discovered, he notes.

"We're kind of like pioneers in this," Jim says. "The whole process is in its infancy."

The varieties of pawpaws grown at Deep Run Pawpaw Orchard average 10 to 12 ounces, more than double the size of wild pawpaws, Donna says. Breeders are also trying to minimize the size of their seeds to have a higher flesh to seed ratio, she says. Pawpaws have 10 to 14 seeds, which are black and resemble lima beans.

But one of the biggest hurdles is trying to create a fruit that can be picked earlier and withstand shipping.

Pawpaws must be picked at their peak, or just a day or two in advance, Jim says, because they do not ripen properly on the shelf. And not all pawpaws, even within the same bunch, ripen at the same time. As a result, he and Donna check each fruit several times a week during harvest season, trying to catch the peak picking time, not too early and not so late that they fall off the tree.

"You have to pick them just at the right time," Jim says. "It's been a learning process."

The level of attention to detail required for the harvest would make it very difficult to train other workers, he says, and so he and Donna work exhausting, sometimes 12-hour days in September, harvesting their fussy fruit.

The harvested pawpaws are stored in the cooler and shipped out twice a week to buyers. Some go to Mackintosh Fruit Farm in Berryville, Va., for retail sale, some to other farms, and others are sold to the websites www.earthy.com and www.heritagefoodsusa.com, where they are marketed as a gourmet delicacy for $10 a pound.

Jim says that with this being a hobby business, it is too much trouble for them to try and sell the fruits directly to customers themselves. But when buyers contact them looking for more than just a couple of fruits, sometimes they are able to work out a deal.

Bud's at Silver Run in Silver Run, Md., for example, purchased some of the pawpaw ice cream made from the Davises' fruit and served it in their restaurant last year, Donna says.

Nancy Hagerty, general manager of Bud's at Silver Run, says the ice cream was a big hit.

"We used pawpaw ice cream for one of our wine dinners, and we flambéed it," Ms. Hagerty says. "We really liked it a lot."

Some of the Davises' pawpaws will be made into ice cream again this year by South Mountain Creamery, a Middletown, Md., dairy that produces homemade ice cream, Donna says.

Pawpaws may never make it to be a grocery store fruit, Jim says, because the labor-intensive harvesting process and narrow window of ripeness. But he could see them becoming a more popular orchard fruit, being sold at more farmers markets.

"You're pretty much learning as you go and collecting the data to help other people," he says. "Every year there seems to be more interest in this fruit."

Editor’s note: For more on pawpaws, read an article about America's forgotten fruit in the Christian Science Monitor.

For more on gardening, see the Monitor’s main gardening page, which offers articles on many gardening topics. Also, check out our blog archive and our RSS feed. You may want to visit Gardening With the Monitor on Flickr. Take part in the discussions and get answers to your gardening questions. If you join the group (it’s free), you can upload your garden photos and enter our next contest. We’ll be looking for photographs of fruits. So find your best shots of summer’s blueberries, peaches, plums, etc., and get out your camera to take some stunning shots of early fall apples. Post them before Sept. 30, 2009, and you could be the next winner.

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