Neal Peterson, a West Virginia farmer and owner of Peterson’s Paw Paws, blames refrigeration at least partly to blame for the demise of the Paw Paw as a common fruit in America. After World War II, the widespread use of refrigerated trucks meant vulnerable fruits (and vegetables) could be stored for longer and travel long distances from farm to table. An “artificial selection” began to take shape, where those foods that could adapt to this new industrial food system survived, while others, like the Paw Paw, simply couldn’t keep up.
A ripe Paw Paw looks a lot like it’s rotten. The fruit is really soft, the skin often dark and bruised. And it’s best to get the fruit right off the tree this way, though you can pick somewhat unripe Paw Paws and store them for 3 – 6 weeks at about 2 degrees Celsius. This crucial fact, that the Paw Paw shelf life is just so poor, has led to it’s demise in the mainstream. Yet with the renewed interest in local, nutrient dense foods, and consumer willingness to take time to process and preserve foods with a limited season, the Paw Paw may just make a comeback.
What are we missing out on, anyway? There are plenty of good fruits to eat in colder, temperate climates; Apples, peaches, pears, plums, grapes, blueberries….the list goes on. Yet the Paw Paw boasts these unique qualities that none of the others, while wonderful foods, can match:
*It’s the largest fruit that can be grown in the Eastern US, with large fruits getting over 1 lb
*The fruit is a relative of Papaya, and both looks and tastes very “tropical” – hints of vanilla, mango, banana, and avocado are common tastes.
*It’s both shade tolerant and julgalone tolerant (can grow with/under Black Walnut trees)
*It contains a high percentage of fat for a fruit – 2%, which is similar to an Avacado. This makes it a real “survival food” and was one of the main reasons it was a staple food for Native Americans and European Settlers alike.
*Paw Paw are high in vitamin C, magnesium, iron, copper, and manganese, a good source of potassium and several essential amino acids, and also contain significant amounts of riboflavin, niacin, calcium, phosphorus, and zinc.
*Studies from Purdue and other institutions have indicated the presences of cancer fighting compounds in the fruit.
All this good stuff from a tree native to 26 states in the US, with its range extending from northern Florida to southern Ontario and West to the eastern portion of Nebraska. In addition to being a great food crop, the tree has ornamental value as well, with a beautiful form and leaf structure.
And, ready for the kicker? IT’S DEER RESISTANT. Heck, it’s even goat resistant. Grower Chris Chmiel of Integration Acres in Southeastern Ohio grazes goats with his Paw Paws. Chris was the originator of the Ohio Paw Paw festival, which takes place each September in Athens, Ohio and features all things paw paw including tastings, paw paw beer, paw paw art, and a number of educational workshops on growing, propagating, and cooking with Paw Paw.
From a Forest Farming perspective, Paw Paw is interesting as it is found naturally as an understory tree, sometimes in very dense shade. While most producers grower paw paw in orchard style plantings in full sun, the tree will fruit decently well in part shade and forests with a full canopy, provided the overstory species are tall enough. Several Paw Paws are thriving in the Black Walnut forest that is part of the MacDaniels Nut Grove at Cornell.
If you are interested in growing Paw Paw, here are the basics:
– You need loamy, well drained soil
– A pH around 5.5-7 is ideal
– You can grow in sun or shade, but for god fruit at least half day sun is recommended
– Young seedlings need to be protected from direct sun
– Plant at least two for cross-pollination
– Plant 8 – 10 feet apart
– If you have less than 50 trees in a planting, you likely need to hand pollinate, which is easy
Thats about it! Take care to water and mulch your trees especially in the first few seasons. These trees are remarkably disease and pest resistant, so little care is required beyond the basics.
The bottom line is; almost anyone who tastes a Paw Paw is hooked. It’s a truly wonderful culinary experience – while Paw Paw can be used in a number of recipes, the best method of eating is to simply slice the fruit and eat it right out of the peel with a spoon. It’s a fruit perfect for the backyard grower, as two to four trees would provide all the fruit a family could eat. It’s time is also coming for reemergence as a commercial crop. Farmers looking for something different, and those willing to process the pulp of what they can’t sell fresh (easiest as frozen pulp) have a niche market just begging for attention.
Come taste Paw Paws and learn about other forest farming products THIS SUNDAY, 10/6 at the MacDaniels Nut Grove on Cornell University Campus: https://events.cornell.edu/event/macdaniels_nut_grove_open_house