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Sustainability Book Chat
If you like growing things that are slightly unusual, then pawpaws may be for you. They are a “tropical” fruit tree that grows in colder climates.
In this episode, I’m talking with Blake Cothron, the author of “Pawpaws: The Complete Growing and Marketing Guide” and the co-owner of Peaceful Heritage Nursery, a USDA Certified Organic fruit mail-order nursery in Kentucky.
Since most people don’t know what pawpaws are, that’s where we start! Then we discuss their incredible history and talk about the basics of growing them. Like a lot of fruit trees, you will need at least two for proper pollination, and Blake suggests buying three to start in case something happens to one.
Finally, we will talk about the best practices for harvesting pawpaws, as well as the best way to preserve that harvest. (Big hint: do NOT make fruit leather with pawpaws!)
Learn more about Blake Cothron online:
Interested in growing fruit trees? Check out my post — Growing a Backyard Orchard.
Deborah Niemann 0:04
Whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever size your living space, you can do more than you think to lead a greener lifestyle. In the sustainability book chat, we are talking to authors and experts about all the different ways that achieving sustainability is within your reach.
Deborah Niemann 0:28
Hello, everyone, and welcome to today’s episode. This is gonna be a super special episode for me, because I live in Illinois. And I don’t know if our guest actually knows this, but there is a town called Paw Paw, Illinois. And ever since I learned that that was named after a tree, I’ve been thinking, “I need to be growing those trees!” It’s, like, such a common wild tree in Illinois, surely I can grow it. And so, that’s what we’re talking about today! We are joined by Blake Cothron, who is the author of Pawpaws: The Complete Growing and Marketing Guide. And, if you’re like me 20 years ago and don’t even know what a pawpaw is, then definitely stick around, because this is going to be a lot of fun. Welcome to the show, Blake!
Blake Cothron 1:13
Thank you. It’s really good to be here.
Deborah Niemann 1:15
So, for people who are going, “A pawpaw? Did she say ‘pawpaw’? What on earth is a pawpaw?” start at the beginning and explain to us what a pawpaw is.
Blake Cothron 1:28
Sure. So, I still get asked that question. And a pawpaw is a native fruit tree. It’s actually the largest edible native fruit in the U.S. I think the only native fruit that is larger than it in North America is the Osage orange or hedge apple; they get pretty hefty. But pawpaw is the largest edible fruit native to North America. And, they can reach sizes of 1/2 pound to a pound. There’s some reports of approaching 2 pounds, actually. And, they come from a tropical fruit family, which is called Annonaceae, and this is the family that contains other tropical fruits such as cherimoya, atemoya, soursop, sugar-apple, custard apple, etc. Some of you may have heard of those, some you may not. And there’s a few species of Annonaceae that live in the U.S., and the one that we’re focused on is Asimina triloba. That’s the Latin name: Asimina triloba. And this is the edible pawpaw that has come to be known as “pawpaw.” And, to clear up some confusion, papayas—which are a tropical fruit you may be familiar with or may see at the grocery store—are also sometimes called “pawpaws,” especially in Australia. And, I believe, in India, also, and some other places with British influence. They’re called “pawpaws.” So, this causes quite a bit of confusion. So, some have suggested calling them “North American pawpaws,” although that’s a bit of a mouthful to say. So, the common vernacular has become “pawpaw.” And so, these are a nice edible fruit. They’re a native tree. They are a host to many different native species of insects and other organisms. And, they’re great fun.
Deborah Niemann 3:21
It was really interesting reading in your book about the history, because as you said, it’s like a tropical fruit. But you know, like, I’m in Illinois, and it gets down way below zero here in the winter. And yet, this tree lives here. Thrives here. So, can you tell us a little bit about the history of the fruit?
Blake Cothron 3:39
Sure. So, going back to the far, far distant past, there is some uncertainty on whether or not pawpaw originated in North America or was moved northward by northward-moving Native American tribes. There is some speculation—that’s pretty much pure speculation at this point—that the fruit was originally a tropical fruit, and seeds were carried and planted further and further north till the point where you had a tree that had adapted to sub-zero temperatures. Because actually, pawpaw is cold-hardy to at least about -15 or -20 degrees Fahrenheit, which is quite cold.
Blake Cothron 4:22
And so, as far as history goes, the first people to use these—that we know of—were the Native Americans of a number of tribes in the South Central U.S., and perhaps up to the Northeastern U.S. as well, including the Cherokee and the Iroquois. They were using pawpaws as food, and it had a lot of other uses for them, too. The bark is extremely strong and ropey and can hardly be broken, and they would make a very strong rope out of this. The seeds also, when crushed, kill lice, and so they were really good to use for children or for situations like that. The seeds were also used as game pieces. And if you’ve ever seen the seeds, they’re kind of hard and shiny, and you can imagine that they’d be nice game pieces. And so, children naturally played with them and threw them all over the villages and everything, and they sprouted up. And, it’s also been noted that where there’s a lot of pawpaw trees somewhat randomly in a forest, that can be a sign that there was a settlement there.
Blake Cothron 5:23
So then, when Europeans came onto the scene in North America, they were educated about pawpaws, probably by the native people, and started utilizing them for food. And they actually are famous for saving the Lewis and Clark Expedition from starvation—or near-starvation—during a difficult episode in the autumn, where they were nearly starving, and they supposedly lived off of pawpaws and some leftover bread and crackers and things they had. And they said that they were reported that they were nourishing and quite good. And so, once a local economy started to get developed, pawpaw naturally became a part of many local economies, as far as produce sales and small fruit cultivation.
Blake Cothron 6:10
So, pawpaws were grown, and they were sold in many local markets up until the early 1900s or so. And they just sort of trailed off and kind of disappeared. And there’s various reasons why that happened. Some are that, as different crops took over, such as apples and pears and peaches, pawpaws just took a smaller and smaller chunk of space, and probably the prices were not as high as for a premium fruit at the time, like an apple compared to a pawpaw. Although now, it’s funny, it’s actually the opposite; pawpaws sell for a whole lot more than apples do. And people in the cities were also unfamiliar with them, because they weren’t growing in the cities. They were growing out in the country where farmers and other rural people lived. And so, they just sort of disappeared after a while and became very obscure. And they were known only to people that were doing back to the land, wild foraging, homesteaders—people that were very, very into exotic, unusual fruits and things like that. They were sort of maintained in the underground, you could say. And, it took Neal Peterson’s zeal to bring them back to the forefront, which, he is the one that sort of initiated the modern renaissance of pawpaw.
Deborah Niemann 7:28
Okay. It has such a fascinating history—much more than any other fruit I’ve heard of. Now, in your book, you mention that there are 150 cultivars of pawpaws. And I’m wondering: Are all 150 of those in North America and edible, or does that include some of the non-edible varieties?
Blake Cothron 7:49
Well, we have to understand the difference between “species” and “variety.” So, there are various species of Annonaceae, such as Asimina parviflora and Asimina pygmaea, and these are related to Asimina triloba, but all we’re talking about today is Asimina triloba, and that’s all I talk about in the book besides mentioning these other species. The other species, in case you are curious, they often do make a fruit, but it’s very small and often marginally edible and not really very useful compared to pawpaw, which makes big, luscious fruit when you’ve got a nice cultivar.
Blake Cothron 8:25
So, the cultivars… Think of, like, a ‘Granny Smith’ apple and a ‘Golden Delicious’ apple and a ‘Gala’ apple. Those are cultivars of apple. So, they’re all apples. So, the different cultivars of pawpaw, such as ‘Sunflower,’ ‘NC-1,’ ‘KSU Atwood,’ ‘Nyomi’s Delicious’—these are all cultivars of pawpaw. So through years of very heavy-duty research, I was able to find over 150 different cultivars listed in various nurseries, publications, research papers, various private growers. There’s actually more than that, but there’s always new ones coming around—especially nowadays. People are planting seeds, and they get one that they think is really good, and they name it something, and now you’ve got a new, named cultivar. Most of these are not available in the nursery trade; actually, probably only around 30 to maybe 40, at most, are available in the nursery trade. The other ones are private growers, or they’re mentioned in research papers. You’d have to track them down, but you could potentially track them down. Now, I also have a list of extinct cultivars, too, just for historical purposes. There’s a list of cultivars that are extinct that no longer probably exist or have just become totally lost.
Deborah Niemann 9:42
Okay. And, you mention in the book that, like a lot of things in life, there are huge fans of the pawpaw, and there are also dissenters—which, I always feel like that’s kind of weird. Like, what do you have against this fruit? So, what do the dissenters say?
Blake Cothron 10:00
Well, it’s just like anything in life. You know, there’s some people that love cheesecake, and there’s some people that think cheesecake is awful. And it’s the same with pawpaws. Some people like them, and some people don’t. You know, the thing about them is that more and more the Western expectation of fruit is that fruit will be crunchy. Apples are crunchy. Pears are usually crunchy. And these days, you go to the grocery store and the darn peach is crunchy. Everything’s crunchy. Every fruit’s crunchy, except, like, a tropical fruit, like a banana or an avocado or papaya.
Blake Cothron 10:33
So, we remember pawpaw is closely related to a lot of tropical fruits. It ain’t crunchy; it’s soft. It’s very soft. High-quality ones have a nice, creamy, avocado-like texture—maybe even somewhat like banana. Poor-quality cultivars are goopy, and we don’t like goopy. And so, over the years, you know, people may have had pawpaws that were just subpar. Like, if you go in the woods and you find wild pawpaws, they may be good, or they may be goopy and full of seeds, or bitter, or not good at all. And some people just have various tastes and preferences, and they just don’t like them. But you have to go into it with the proper expectation, that this is something akin to a tropical fruit; it’s going to have a soft, creamy texture, kind of like a whipped avocado or like a Greek yogurt. And it’s going to be very fragrant and sweet. And, for some people, they’re too sweet. But as far as their popularity, these days just keeps growing exponentially. And most people that try them think that they’re stellar and become an instant fan.
Deborah Niemann 11:38
So, if you were going to purchase one from one of the nursery catalogs or something, are those usually chosen because they are more palatable?
Blake Cothron 11:49
Yes. And we do run a nursery and offer pawpaw trees, and one thing that we made sure at our nursery is that we only sell varieties of pawpaws that are high-quality. There are a few not-so-good varieties still out there. Personally, I think the variety called “Mango.” Although the name is great, I think it’s pretty low-quality and pretty goopy. So, you just want to check your sources and make sure you’re going to a nursery that carries high-quality varieties, and not just base it off them. But, that being said, any of the varieties that are being released by Kentucky State University. Those are called the “KSU varieties,” such as ‘KSU Atwood,’ ‘KSU Benson,’ ‘KSU Chappell.’ Or, any of the Peterson varieties—these are trademarked and named after various rivers in West Virginia, such as ‘Susquehanna,’ ‘Tallahatchie,’ ‘Allegheny.’ Those are all solid varieties; you could depend on that they’re going to be high-quality. And other ones, I would just check reviews and talk with growers, or check our book and read the descriptions carefully.
Deborah Niemann 12:57
If someone wants to start growing these, is there anything tricky about growing them, or anything that someone should look out for or be aware of before planting their first pawpaw trees?
Blake Cothron 13:10
For sure, yeah. This is described in detail in the book. It’s a very important topic, because as the interest in pawpaws continues to grow exponentially, people from all over the place want to grow them. So, what I will say is that there’s a few parameters, and a few things you have to keep in mind. First of all, pawpaws are not tropical; they have to have a dormant cold period. Even the subtropics are probably not suitable at all. So, they need to have a cold, dormant period where they lose their leaves. And the cold tolerance that they can handle, depending on variety, is around -15 to -20 Fahrenheit. That makes them capable of being grown in most of the U.S. But, you don’t want to push them too far unless you are just wanting to experiment.
Blake Cothron 14:00
Another factor is that they need humidity. So, they’re not acclimated to growing in deserts. They’re not acclimated to growing in many parts of the Southwest. You have to really augment the environment to do that. Like, I know some growers grow them in the Southwest, but they have, like, shade cloth netting over them, and they’re misting them with water, and it’s a little bit excessive for most people. So, that being said, the Southeastern U.S. is ideal down to about North Florida. They’ll even grow down to south Mississippi, parts of Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, up to Kentucky works great. Indiana is prime territory. Most of Illinois should be fine. Ohio is good territory. They grow all the way up to New York, and other places in the Northeast that don’t get too severely cold and don’t have too short of a season—although I have heard there are growers even in Vermont. Now there—if you’re in those areas—you want to focus on the most cold-hardy varieties, as well as if you’re in the upper parts of the Midwest.
Blake Cothron 15:06
Another factor that’s very important to consider is that you have to have more than one pawpaw tree of a different variety or different genetics, because they do have to have a mate to crosspollinate with. They’re not male and female; they produce flowers that have both male and female parts, and they change, you could say, as the flowers ripen. So, they start out female, and then the flowers turn male. And so, they have to be able to swap pollen, or there’ll be no fruit. So, you have to have more than one. So that means that if you have named cultivars, you can’t have, for instance, two ‘KSU Atwood’ trees; you have to have a ‘KSU Atwood’ and a ‘KSU Benson,’ or a ‘KSU Atwood’ and ‘Tallahatchie,’ etc. Or, you could have a named cultivar and you could have a seedling, or you could have two seedlings. So, you just have to have different genetics. And I always recommend that, if you’re really serious about when you grow pawpaws, plant at least three trees. That way, if one of them dies in a storm or gets run over, then you’re not stuck with one tree, and you got to replant another one, and then wait a number of years until it’s flowering. So, if you’re really serious, plant at least three minimum. And a nice thing about them is that, we’re calling them trees, but they’re quite small as far as trees go. If they’re left completely unmanaged, they’re only going to get about 20 feet tall and about 20 feet wide in full sun. If you’re pruning them and training them and everything, you can keep them a lot smaller. And you can plant the trees as close as 8 or 10 feet apart. So they don’t… They’re not going to grow huge like a maple tree or an oak tree or something. They stay quite small. They’re almost like a large shrub.
Deborah Niemann 16:53
That sounds really fun. I’m really looking forward to growing some. When it comes to planting time, is it better for people to plant in the spring or the fall?
Blake Cothron 17:03
Yeah, that’s actually a really important consideration, because pawpaws are one fruit tree that does not plant well in the fall. Unlike apple trees and pear trees, the roots apparently do not continue to grow all winter long, and so they can get damaged a little bit through transplanting, and then they just rot during the wintertime, because they don’t callus over and they don’t continue growing. So, fall planting usually fails in most areas, especially colder regions. So, really spring or early summer planting is the only recommended time, and just make sure to transplant potted trees; bareroot does not usually do very well. It has a much lower success rate than potted trees. So, go for high-quality potted trees, water them in well, give them plenty of mulch. They do need complete grass and weed control. So, you don’t want to have grass and lawn growing up around the pawpaw trees; you want to have a grass-free zone and make sure that they don’t dry out the first summer. They do need regular watering until the roots are established. After that, they’re very drought-hearty, but they do need watering the first year especially, and maybe the second year, unless you’re getting lots and lots of rain. But for most people, you’re gonna want to water them the first season.
Deborah Niemann 18:22
Now, once you have grown them, what do you do in terms of harvesting? What time of year do they get ripe? And what are you looking for before you pick them?
Blake Cothron 18:32
Sure. So, they ripen in late summer to fall, depending on your location. In the heart of pawpaw country, which is like Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, they ripen around… Mid-September is, like, the peak of pawpaw season. We do have some early cultivars that ripen here in Kentucky as early as late August—which is just a couple of weeks away. I better be checking on those. And there are some varieties that ripen as late in Kentucky as the middle of October. So around, I would say, late August to mid-October is pawpaw season. Up north, it’s going to be mid- to late September, early October. Down south, it can be as early as mid-August to September. But really, these are a fall fruit or a late summer fruit. They do not require frost to ripen; some sources will erroneously say that. They don’t require any frost to ripen. In fact, frost will damage the leaves in the ripening fruit if it’s underripe.
Blake Cothron 19:35
And, the fruit start to fall when they’re ripe. And they also give to a light squeeze, like a peach. Like, you could leave your indention of your thumb if you press them, and they’re ripe. They’re rock-hard until they’re ripe. If you pick them off the tree when they’re rock-hard, they will almost never ripen. So, best is to just let them naturally fall. Or, if you squeeze every single one, and you feel a few soft ones, you can cut those off; it’s better to cut them so the little stem is attached, similar to an avocado. If you just pull them, it kind of rips the skin off, and yeast and bacteria and things can get in there and start the fermentation process within just a couple days. So, it’s best to leave a stem attached, especially if you’re going to be marketing them. If you’re just a backyarder, don’t care, just let them fall, pick them up off the ground. And watch out for the raccoons and the possums, because they like pawpaws, and if you live where these creatures are, they can show up and start eating them if you leave them on the ground. So, what you can also do is maybe put tarps down on the ground or straw or something. And they can just fall on there, and they’re less likely to get bruised and damaged. But they do bruise easily. They’re soft. They’re fragile. So, for marketing purposes, you always want to cut them off the tree.
Blake Cothron 20:50
And some people like them when they’re fresh off the tree like that. Ripe. And, at that point, the skin is quite green or greenish-yellow. And as they ripen, similar to a banana, the skin darkens. And the skin will darken and turn kind of more and more brownish as time goes on. And this also intensifies the flavor, similar to a banana. So, most people like bananas when they’re yellow with a few little black or brown spots. Similarly, most people tend to like pawpaws when they’re maybe a day or two off the tree. But as they darken, the flavor will intensify until they eventually spoil. And also, it should be mentioned that if you eat underripe pawpaw, it can give you a bellyache. So, you want to make sure they’re very nice and ripe. And it’s obvious when they’re ripe. They’re soft. They’re creamy. They’re fragrant. They’re delicious. But if you go and pick one off a tree half-ripe and eat it, probably going to be in for a bellyache. And they ripen for a few weeks, so they don’t all drop at once. They do ripen sequentially. And most trees tend to drop fruit for about 2 to 3 weeks, maybe a month at the most.
Deborah Niemann 22:01
And, once you’ve harvested them, is there anything that you can do to preserve the harvest, like canning, freezing, drying the pawpaws?
Blake Cothron 22:11
Sure. So, canning is not really recommended. Some people do make, like, pawpaw jam; perhaps that can be canned. I don’t know enough about that, actually, to speak on that. Dehydrating absolutely does not work, and will definitely cause you bellyache if you eat dehydrated pawpaws or pawpaw leather. So, don’t ever consider doing that. Freezing is the best way to preserve them. And the pulp freezes extremely well, and it keeps its quality for months and months on end. And it can be utilized in smoothies. It’s amazing in smoothies. It makes some of the best ice cream you’ll ever have in your entire life. And it can also be used in a lot of other ways. Some people make brew with it—and that’s getting quite popular. Pawpaw beer is actually quite popular. It can also be used to make things like sauces. Some people are experimenting with making pawpaw wine, and a lot of other preparations, like chutneys. And some people like to make, like, pawpaw bread and use that in lieu of bananas—that’s becoming quite popular, too. So, there’s a lot of things you can do with it. But it’s not quite as versatile as maybe some other fruits that you can dehydrate and can and things like that. But, freezing the pulp is a great way to deal with it if you’ve got excess or you want to put some away.
Deborah Niemann 23:37
Well, this has been really exciting, and I think this information is going to get a lot of people to start searching for pawpaws to plant. Where can people connect with you online?
Blake Cothron 23:51
Sure. So, we have a nursery that specializes in pawpaws. It’s a USDA certified organic nursery. We offer pawpaw trees, pawpaw scion wood for grafting, and also pawpaw seeds of very high-quality genetics, and that’s PeacefulHeritage.com. The nursery is called Peaceful Heritage Nursery. And that’s the best place where people can connect with us. And, if anyone wanted to send us an email, the address is Order@PeacefulHeritage.com. And our book is also available there—Pawpaws—the complete guide to growing and marketing.
Deborah Niemann 24:30
Awesome! Well, thank you so much for being with us today.
Blake Cothron 24:34
You’re very welcome. Thank you for hosting me here.
Deborah Niemann 24:37
And that’s it for today’s episode. You can find show notes at ThriftyHomesteader.com/BookChat, as well as a transcript. If you haven’t already done so, be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss any future episodes. You can also find Thrifty Homesteader on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. See you next week on “Sustainability Book Chat.”