Once popular fruit has new backers


September 21, 1993|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Staff Writer

KEEDYSVILLE -- As apples ripen in Western Maryland's declining number of commercial orchards, you'll find R. Neal Peterson walking among fruit-bearing trees picking . . . pawpaws.

Pawpaws? Never heard that old American folk song?: "Pickin' up pawpaws, put 'em in your pocket, pickin' up pawpaws, put 'em in your pocket . . . way down yonder in the pawpaw patch?"

You're not alone.

But Mr. Peterson, founder of the Pawpaw Foundation, hopes to rescue pawpaws from obscurity.

After all, pawpaws once were common enough in Western Maryland -- and many other places -- to warrant having places named in their honor. They were a basic American fruit, part of the papaya family.

Then came the banana around the start of the 20th century, and the pawpaw became a memory in the United States. But Mr. Peterson and others figure that if a furry little fruit from New Zealand like the kiwi can become popular in a short time, why not the native-American pawpaw? He and horticulturists across the country are again cultivating pawpaws, a fruit that resembles an overgrown pear and tastes like custard, for eventual commercial distribution.

"They're a very sweet fruit," said John Popenoe, a retired botanist who maintains a pawpaw orchard in Allegany County. "There's very little acidity."

Among the trees researchers are scrutinizing for the best possible fruit are orchards at the University of Maryland experiment stations in Washington County and near Wye Mills on the Eastern Shore. About 2,000 have been planted in Maryland. But you're not likely to find a pawpaw for sale in produce bins soon.

Mr. Peterson, an agricultural economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and his colleagues believe commercial success is years away.

"This is not something new we're trying to introduce to this country," said Desmond R. Layne, principal investigator in horticulture at Kentucky State University, who visited the Washington County orchard recently. "This is a native fruit. It has high nutritional value."

These ornamental trees with droopy leaves were once common along shady riverbanks in most of the eastern United States, including Maryland. Their legacy remains in towns such as Paw Paw, W.Va., and the Paw Paw Tunnel, through which the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal passes on Maryland's side of the Potomac.

"These trees are still around. They're not hard to find," said Mr. Peterson, who calls Washington, D.C., home. "You used to see one pawpaw after another along the C&O Canal and the Potomac River."

Mr. Peterson said the trees, which grow as tall as 40 feet, were signs of fertile soil and often were cleared for farming. "That whole area of the Mississippi that flooded was probably pawpaw country," he said.

Mr. Peterson revived interest in the pawpaw with the establishment of the Pawpaw Foundation in 1988. The nonprofit group promotes research and development of the fruit as a new crop for farmers and consumers. The group has about 70 members.

"It's something I do as a hobby," said Mr. Peterson, who grew up near Charleston, W.Va., and has always had an interest in plants. "I'm an agricultural economist, a desk job. This gets me out into the country side."

That is particularly true in the fall, when the fruit ripens. The change is subtle, a slight variation in the green color of the fruit, which has yellow flesh, soft and mellow.

The orchard in Keedysville began bearing fruit in 1991. Mr. Peterson has chosen 50 trees for close observation. Eventually, 10 trees will be selected for breeding.

Mr. Peterson's work already has attracted the interest of people such as Dr. Layne and Dean R. Evert, a horticulturist at the University of Georgia, and small farmers, including Mr. Popenoe, who want to grow the fruit as a roadside crop.

"We see it as a potential fruit crop in our area," said Dr. Evert, who also has visited the Keedysville orchard. "Neal is the expert and has most of the fruit that is available."

Among the obstacles to overcome are extending the shelf life of the fruit -- it deteriorates after two days -- developing a shorter tree that would be more conducive to harvesting and producing the most flavorful fruit possible.

"Through our research, we hope to determine how to best grow the fruit and how to overcome some of the limitations," Dr. Layne said.

The tree and fruit are particularly attractive to farmers because they have few natural enemies. Few pesticides are necessary.

"There is just so much potential," Dr. Layne said, but he noted that as far as the fruit goes, "people either really like it or they don't like it."

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