Trek through Missouri and you won’t see any palm trees or ocean resorts. Wander through the woods, however, and you may come across a tropical-like fruit with a flavor that is described as a mix between pineapple, mango and banana. It is a pawpaw, and if you’ve never tasted one, you’re not alone.
The MU Center for Agroforestry hopes to change that.
What are they?
The pawpaw native to North America is a tree fruit belonging mostly to the tropical custard apple family Annonaceae. Pawpaw is a common name for papaya, but the fruits are very different from each other.
Where are they grown?
Pawpaws usually grow in USDA zones 5-8, which includes the entire state of Missouri, in deep, well-drained, acidic soil with plenty of moisture.
What do they taste like?
The Kentucky State University pawpaw Web site describes the experience as "a creamy, custard-like flesh with a complex combination of tropical fruit flavors. They are most commonly described as tasting like banana combined with mango, pineapple, melon, berries or other fruit."
When are they in season?
Pawpaws are in season during a four-week period between mid-August and into October.
How do I know if they are ripe?
The process of detecting ripe pawpaws is described on the KYSU pawpaw Web site: "Ripe pawpaws should give when squeezed gently. Ripe pawpaws usually give off a powerful fruity aroma, as well. Color change is generally not a reliable indicator of ripeness."
How can I use them?
The KYSU Web site has recipes for various uses of the pawpaw, including bread, cookies and milkshakes.
“The fruit has a tradition of people going into the woods and gathering it. People may have heard about it from their grandfather but probably have never tasted it themselves," said Kirk Pomper, director of the pawpaw program at Kentucky State University.
Although the fruit is native to the eastern half of the United States, it is not typically grown by farmers. Located in New Franklin, the MU center started a pawpaw trial in 1999 with 10 cultivars — plants selected for particular attributes — and 50 trees.
In the past several years, the trees have begun to bear fruit, and the center is evaluating traits such as look, shape and taste or problems with insects or disease. Besides evaluating the fruit itself, the center works to develop the market that exists for pawpaws.
“Our mission is to help strengthen the family farm,” Michael Gold, associate director of the center, said. “It’s not just with environmental issues but with economic issues as well and one way to do that is by introducing a new crop.”
The center took pawpaws to the public for the first time this year, selling the fruit on a Saturday at the Columbia Farmers' Market and for a few weeks in Clovers Natural Market. In an effort to gather more information about the fruit’s market potential, customers at the farmers market were given surveys.
“We were there all morning and had sold out by 10:30,” Gold said. “We asked people what they thought about it, whether they had tried it before, its price and where they would want to buy it. This was just one day, one market, one experience, but I think people liked it.”
“People were curious,” Diane Hazelwood, Clovers produce manager, said. “They sold all right. It brought back a lot of childhood memories for die-hard Missourians.”
One hurdle in the market for pawpaws is the fruit’s perishability. Gold said he expects there to be a much larger market for the fruit’s pulp then for the fruit itself.
“You can’t just concentrate on the market for fresh fruit sales," Gold said. "Two logical places to try and market the fruit is with ice cream and yogurt manufacturers, to add pawpaw as a flavor.”
Gold also mentioned approaching chefs about adding the fruit to their menu.
He said he estimated that the center should be able to make a recommendation to farmers about the fruit’s potential as a crop within the next five years.
“We want to do the leg work, so we can take some of the risk out of it for farmers and then once we have enough information, just pass the baton to them,” Gold said.
The center has developed a similar program with chestnuts and will host its annual Chestnut Roast to highlight the nut and other agricultural speciality products on Oct. 18. For information, visit centerforagroforestry.org.