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.
UNION MILLS, Md.
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.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.
"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.