Book Review: Pawpaws, The Complete Growing and Marketing Guide by Blake Cothron

Pawpaws: The Complete Growing and Marketing Guide by Blake Cothron, New Society Publishers, 2021, $29.99

“Blake Cothron is an authority on pawpaws, and provides a clear, detailed guide for commercial success in growing this “oddly appealing species” (his own words). The supply of this exotic, trending, easy-to-grow fruit has not yet met the demand. Blake shares the wealth of his knowledge, including challenges, and when he doesn’t know, he says so (and it’s probable that others don’t know either.)”

This is the advance praise I wrote for Pawpaws, now inside the front cover. Last fall I reviewed Michael Judd’s For the Love of Pawpaws, a permaculturist’s take on growing pawpaws among diversified crops. Blake’s book, while mainly intended for small-scale organic commercial growers, is equally useful for the backyard enthusiast. Blake ensures you have the information you need to choose what to grow, where to buy it, how to plant it, keep it thriving, prune and harvest. Depending on your scale, you can try the nine exquisite recipes here, or sell gourmet pawpaws online, or make value-added products such as craft brews, jams, and baked goods.

Blake and his wife Rachel Cothron, own Peaceful Heritage Nursery, a 4-acre USDA Certified Organic research farm, orchard, and edible plant nursery, near Louisville, Kentucky, the perfect climate for pawpaws.

America’s almost forgotten native fruit looks tropical and has an exotic appeal, but is an easy to grow temperate climate tree, and very cold hardy (US Winter hardiness zone 5, -20˚F/-29˚C). It is ripe for 4-6 weeks in late August-September. Although mostly grown in the South-east and Mid-Atlantic, pawpaws will grow in portions of 26 US states. Avoid confusion with the tropical papaya, which is sometimes also called pawpaw. The North American pawpaw is Asimina triloba.

The book is studded with cultural gems such as that you can sometimes locate the site of an old native American village by the clusters of pawpaws still growing there.

Blake Cothron

There are some false myths about pawpaws, including the idea that they are secretly tropical and related to bananas, papaya and mango, They are not. The second myth is that they grow best in shade. Also not true! They can grow in shade, but will not produce good fruit unless in full sun. A third myth is that they are ripe when blackened by frost. Oh no! They are usually ripe weeks before frost. Frost is not a benefit, but a cause of damage! (This myth is not true of persimmons either.) Another myth is that the flowers smell really bad. It’s just not true. Lastly, a myth that would be nice if true: pawpaws are not immune to all diseases and pests. Certainly they don’t suffer from as many health challenges as apples or peaches, but there are pawpaw troubles as Blake explains. All these stories show how important it is to have a trustworthy guidebook.

Wild pawpaws are found as thickets of suckers growing up from the enmeshed roots of older trees, or as clusters of seedlings around a mother tree. They may feed wild animals, but will not grow the large tasty fruits humans want. Suckers are clones of the mother tree, and as pawpaws are rarely self-fertile, these thickets do not produce fruit. For human food, pawpaw trees need full sun, well-draining soil and plenty of space. Not what you might have assumed. Read this book!

Wild pawpaws are most often found in moist lowland areas near water, but in well-draining areas, not swampland. They are often on sunny slopes (not northerly sides). They can be found along edges of clearings, trails and old roadways. In Kentucky, Blake reports about 25% of the wild pawpaws are tasty, 50% are edible and 25% are “spitters”. If you’ve experienced anything other than the top 25%, this book can be your encouragement to try some cultivated types.

When you buy pawpaw trees, go for potted 1-4ft grafted trees at $30-$50 each. These will survive for 15-20 years and provide harvests for 10-15 of those. During that time you can plan where and when to plant your next pawpaw grove. Cheap bare-root seedling trees will save you money, but they won’t earn you money or appreciative friends. Premium fruit comes from premium trees, well cared-for.

Pawpaw trees can mature at 20ft tall, or you can keep them pruned to be 7-15ft and avoid high ladder work. The diameter of a mature tree can be 20ft in full sun, with an attractive pyramid shape.

Peaceful Heritage Nursery,

When planning your orchard site, remember “the more sun, the more fruit”. 12-14 hours is best, but 7-8 hours of direct, strong, undiluted sunlight will be enough for a decent fruit set. Pawpaws are not too exacting about soil, apart from the need for good drainage. Soil can be improved, but heavy wet soils need improving years before planting!

If you plan to mow with a tractor, you’ll need to plant rows 18-20ft apart. Otherwise 15-18ft between rows and 8-12ft between trees in the row will be enough. You do need genetically different trees close enough to cross-pollinate.

There are three colors of fruit: yellow, orange and white, with the orange ones having the strongest flavors (“banana/honey/persimmon/pumpkin”). Yellow-fleshed cultivars have more of a “banana/cocoa butter/Mexican flan/nutty/marshmallow/caramel flavor”, very sweet, with an aroma of citrus, pineapple, cantaloupe and strawberry. The white-fleshed ones are the mildest, with a “vanilla/light banana/cantaloupe/coconut/tropical fruit” flavor and a high sugar content.

Pawpaw fruit should be creamy, not watery or hard. There should not be any bitter or unpleasant after-taste! Another feature to consider when choosing varieties is the seed-to-pulp ratio. Ideally the seeds will comprise less than 10% of the total weight. Wild pawpaws can be 50% to 75% seeds.

Page from Pawpaws by Blake Cothron, showing fruits and seeds. Photo New Society Publishers and Blake Cothron

Blake includes 57 pages of good, bad and interesting facets of all 50 cultivars he could find in 2020. Some are widely available, others need to be tracked down through the North American Pawpaw Growers Association (NAPGA) or the North American Fruit Explorers (NAFEX). Don’t rely on nursery descriptions, but use Blake’s notes, where he has worked hard to be fair and objective. This book costs less than one tree, and can save many mistakes!

Blake distinguishes between Early Ripening (Aug 20-Sept 5), Mid-Season (Sept 5-30) and Late Season (after Oct 1). The dates are for zones 5b-6b, and outside that area they offer a relative idea. There is a grading scale (incorporating different professional opinions) based on size, flavor, texture, reliability and yield. Choose As and Bs unless you have a good reason to do otherwise. Size grades are Jumbo (16oz+), Large (12-16oz), Medium (7-12oz) and Small (3-6oz). Commercial growers don’t mess with the little ones.

A matter to face with pawpaws is that eating under-ripe ones can cause nausea. Some people cannot tolerate cooked pawpaw, Some speculate that it is the combination of cooked pawpaw with grains (as in baked goods) that give them trouble. Be ready for these possibilities but do not let them discourage you (or potential customers!) There are also people who sometimes experience mild euphoria after eating pawpaws, without harm. The one thing to never make or consume, is pawpaw fruit leather! It can cause 24 hours of serious intestinal distress. This is the “warts and all” part of the book. Avoid these problems and enjoy everything else about pawpaws.

Thinking how to incorporate pawpaws into your diverse farming? You do need to keep the grass and weeds down somehow. Grazing, mowing or mulching are the usual methods. In damp eastern regions, mowing will need to be done once a month from April to October. Mulch needs to follow the 3:3:3 rule: 3ins deep, 3ft wide around each tree, keeping 3ins away from the trunk. Cardboard topped with organic mulch is one option. Landscape fabric is another. Wood or bark chips can work well.

Blake tells cautionary tales about planting a new pawpaw orchard and not providing irrigation. Climate change is making rainfall more erratic and we get both extremes of quantity.  There is no substitute for water in a drought, so install an irrigation system before you plant, or immediately afterwards. Once the orchard is established, you might not need to water much.  Blake recommends orchard tubing with two emitters per tree, providing a gallon of water per tree per day.

Pawpaws go dormant in winter, unlike some other fruits that can be planted in the fall in milder climates. Plant in spring or early summer, digging large holes, breaking up the edges of the hole, supplying amendments, and having mulch on hand. This book gives clear step-by-step instructions. Staked tree protectors are essential for trees shorter than 30ins (seedlings) or 18ins (grafted trees). One main purpose is to protect the young trees from UV radiation. Tubex and Blue-X tree shelters are suggested.

While the trees are young, you can use the aisles for something else, such as grazing, or growing hay or another crop. Whichever weed control method you use, you will need to hand weed the small inner circles around each tree, including clipping suckers coming up from the rootstock. This gives you an opportunity to study each tree up close and see how it’s doing.

The pests and diseases chapter is complemented by color photos. With pawpaws, there is still much that is not known (or was known and then lost). Insects that attack pawpaws do not usually do much damage, although the list is long and includes borers, stinging caterpillars, a webworm, a leaf roller, the ubiquitous Japanese beetle, slugs, snails aphids, mites, thrips, scale insects and the Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly.  Jeremy Lowe at VSU has a very good PowerPoint presentation with superb photos.

I have been fascinated by the ZSB since reading about it in Michael Judd’s book, where I learned that the butterflies arrive at the time the pawpaws flower. Since then, I’m on the lookout each spring. The pawpaw is the ZSB’s only host, so do not kill all their caterpillars in your pawpaw trees – they have nowhere else to live! The eggs are laid between June and August. The caterpillars, which grow to 2ins long, eat the leaves and the damage to young trees is a real concern. Blake recommends hand-picking the caterpillars and carrying them to a wild pawpaw patch, or to some mature cultivated pawpaws, where they do little damage. Also, avoid destroying nearby wasp nests as the Ichneumon wasp Trogus pennator is a predator of the caterpillars, and nature may balance out.

For many pests and diseases, the key to healthy trees is good sanitation, keeping a clean orchard floor (mulched or mowed, I don’t mean bare soil!), and removing diseased wood or leaves.

Deer bite off buds and young shoots, and rub their antlers on the trunks. Goats do not eat pawpaw trees, although they can do damage rubbing their horns against the trunks. Other large pests include raccoons, possums, small rodents, and sapsuckers (small woodpeckers).

Diseases include Phyllosticta leaf spot, a fungal pathogen., and a few others, including Black Spot (Diplocarpon spp) which strikes in rainy seasons.

The condition of the leaves will show you if your fertility program is adequate. Healthy leaves are a deep vibrant green and bigger than human hands. Young trees should make 16-24ins of growth each year after the first one, until they are mature. Fertilize heavily from March-June in zone 6.

Pawpaw fruit cluster.
New Society Publishers and Blake Cothron

The chapter on flowering stages and cold tolerance of each (information that is hard to find elsewhere) will save you from disappointment. See the helpful photos showing blossom stages. Unlike some tree fruits (apples, pears), pawpaws bloom over a period of time, resulting in flowers at different stages, giving insurance against all being killed by one frost. In zone 6 the very cold-hardy Velvet Bud stage, when fruit buds start to develop, is in mid-February and full bloom starts in early April.

Pollination is conducted by various flies, beetles including lady bugs and ants, and spiders. Not by bees. So for good pollination, plant insect-attracting flowers in your orchard. Fruit takes 4-7 months to mature.

Pawpaw trees begin to fruit in year 3-5, with 5-10lbs/tree and double that the next year. A mature tree will yield a bushel (30-40lbs). Harvesting needs to be done gently (no vigorous tree-shaking!). Use sharp bypass pruners and set the fruit in a single layer in cushioned boxes. Ship immediately or use refrigerated storage for a couple of days. If picked ripe but firm, pawpaws can be stored for 3-4 weeks under refrigeration. They won’t be as delicious as tree-ripened fruits.

You can sell pawpaws at 2-3 times the price of apples, maybe $5-10/lb. Because the demand is not widespread, do not rely on farmers’ markets. The marketing chapter suggests 8 channels for selling pawpaw fruit. You will need to provide information and an attractive display or stunning photos if selling online. Avoid the question “What do we do now with a hundred or even thousands of pounds of soft, dripping ripe pawpaw fruit?” by planning months or years ahead.

If selling remotely, make it really clear that pawpaws are only available to ship in August and September (or whatever is true in your region). Ship out only perfect unblemished fruit picked that same day, and ship only Monday-Thursday. Weekend shipping can go very wrong! Pack the fruit with enough lightweight packing material so that when you shake the box, nothing moves. (I learned this tip packing garlic for shipping.) Shipping fruit across the country is a strange business with a large carbon footprint. Consider if you have better options selling locally, including specialty groceries.

Sales to restaurants can work well, as long as you have clear agreements, including price ($1-$3 per pound). Be perfectly reliable, make the chef’s life as easy as possible. Deliver early rather than late if you can’t be on time.

One feature of modern pawpaw marketing is that currently most Americans prefer crunchy fruit (even crunchy peaches) and the pawpaw is far from crunchy. Describing the texture as similar to creamy avocados, but sweet, seems a promising approach.

You could sell fruit as frozen pulp (deseeded!) to restaurants, bakeries or breweries. You could make value-added products from the less-than-perfect fruit yourself. As well as the items mentioned earlier, don’t overlook the possibilities of ice cream, chutney, food supplement pills and jewelry made form pawpaw seeds. Find out about the Cottage Food Laws in your state. Blake recommends the Ohio Pawpaw Growers Association with 29 handouts about NA Pawpaws.

Aside from selling fruit, you could sell seeds, seedlings or grafted potted trees. Seedling trees can be unpredictable, but if you start with good parents, you improve the chance of getting good seedlings. You can use seedlings as rootstock for grafting, or sell them to people growing food forests where productivity is not the main concern.

Seeds removed from ripe fruits need to be washed, cleaned, sterilized, labeled, stratified at 35-45˚F for 90-120 days, ensuring they don’t freeze. Seeds are sown on their sides, and can take 6-12 weeks to emerge above the soil. 2-3 year-old seedlings are used for grafting rootstock. Grafting is fairly easy, and KSU has some very good free videos.

The book includes a pawpaw calendar, cost analysis and some troubleshooting. Tips include not to worry if your new trees only grow a few inches the first year. This is probably because growth is happening underground, establishing strong roots. It could be a sign of root damage during transplanting, so if you are about to plant more, improve your technique! Damage caused by sunburn, dehydration, nutritional shortages, attacks by beetles, sapsuckers, string-trimmers, Phyllosticta disease, borers, deer, and winter sun, are all covered.

The cost analysis deals with start-up costs (not minor when trees cost $30 each). For an acre containing 295 trees that’s $8,850. Tree protection fencing can add $1,376. Landscape fabric and irrigation together can equal the fencing cost.  Other smaller costs add in to a total close to $10, 700 for the acre. Try for a wholesale tree price between $15 and $25, and your total is more like $6,260.

Production costs are estimated by KSU at $1,650/acre; harvest and market costs at $6,200/acre, including labor for pruning and harvesting at $12.50/hr. Total variable costs come out at $8,400/acre. Gross returns could be $9,600/acre, if you sell wholesale at $1.75/pound. Don’t quit your day job yet, but pawpaws can be a good addition to an existing operation with compatible markets.

The two-page Pawpaw Orchard Calendar is a quick reference guide for annual maintenance, and the dates where you live may need to be as much as one month later in spring and one month earlier in fall. The resources section includes books, supplies, and groups, including Peaceful Heritage Nursery.

Blake has created a highly readable, enjoyable and very intensive exploration into the cultivation of North American pawpaw.” This book is practical, useful and fascinating.

Here’s a one-hour webinar from New Society Publishers:

Book Review: For the Love of Pawpaws by Michael Judd

For The Love of Pawpaws: A Mini Manual for Growing and Caring for Pawpaws From Seed to Table

Michael Judd, Published August 2019 by Ecologia, Distributed by Chelsea Green Publishing, ISBN 978-0-578-48874-5.

This wonderful new book is inspiring and appetizing, practical and beautiful. About 150 pages of glorious photos, technical details, mouthwatering recipes, and anything else you might need to start growing pawpaws or to make better use of wild pawpaws on neglected trees nearby. Here you can learn the reasons to plant named cultivars that have been selected for size, flavor, and high yields.

Michael Judd, his wife Ashley and son Wyatt live at Long Creek Homestead in a round house on a homestead in the Maryland Appalachian foothills, where they grow many food trees and other fruits, and hold an annual Pawpaw Festival each September .

Pawpaws are related to custard apples and cherimoya, in the sugar apple family, and yet they grow in the temperate zone, having moved north as Ice Age glaciers receded. Flavors of mango, banana and pineapple come from this creamy fruit. But if you don’t know what you’re doing and you let them get bruised, or you pick them under-ripe, you can end up with a bitter taste in your mouth, or a bellyache. So get this book!

Learn how to spot wild pawpaws in a forest edge or along a river bank. They need full sun to develop good flavor, although the trees will grow in the shade. If you want to grow your own, you can of course grow them from wild seeds (that you keep damp and plant right after eating the fruit).

Growing Pawpaws
The four key elements of successful pawpaw production:
  1. moisture (minimum of 32” (81 cm) annual rainfall or access to continuous soil moisture);
  2. well-drained soil, preferably fertile;
  3. warm humid summers with 160 frost-free days;
  4. cold winters including some freezing temperatures and at least 400 chill hours.

USDA Winter-hardiness zones 5-9 are most-suited. If these factors are addressed, the pawpaw can be an easy-care fruit tree. We have all those factors in our area of central Virginia, and we have wild trees along the South Anna river. We also have cultivated varieties planted near our houses. Given the right conditions, pawpaw trees grow to an attractive 25 ft (7.6 m) pyramid shape, and can bear 50 lbs (23 k) of fruit each year.

It’s best to have two or more genetically different trees close together, for good cross-pollination and heavy fruit set. Individual flowers cannot pollinate themselves, and although each tree can self-pollinate, the yield might not be large. The unusual purple-brown flowers are fairly inconspicuous.

The chapters on growing the trees includes collecting seeds, germinating them, planting, grafting, choosing rootstock and the importance of soil fungi. Read about companion planting with nitrogen-fixing plants (such as lead plant, false indigo, black locust, which will need cutting back later) and soil-covering “mulch” plants (such as comfrey, yarrow, lemon balm, fuki, white clover). The tree-care chapter includes fruit thinning, and pruning (avoid climbing these brittle trees by keeping them 8 ft (2.4 m) tall).

Cultivated Varieties

If you have only eaten wild pawpaws, you’ll be amazed at the cultivated ones – much bigger, with a more balanced sweet flavor, delicious aroma and smooth texture. Michael offers advice on choosing a variety and choosing and planting potted seedlings. He introduces us to Neal Peterson, who he calls the Mahatma Pawpaw. Neal has created most of the best pawpaw cultivars. I profiled his work here.

Factors to consider include when the fruit ripens and whether all fruits ripen within a small window; whether the fruit softens quickly; whether the skin is thin (undesirable if you are selling or attempting to store the fruit); whether they tend to split in rainy weather; whether they need a lot of fruit thinning to preserve the health of the tree; how big the fruit is (4-6 oz (114-170 g)? 8oz (227 g)? 16 oz(454 g)?) ; the seed:pulp ratio (some big fruits have huge seeds – an ideal range is only 4-8% seeds). Michael offers profiles of the seven Peterson cultivars, the three Kentucky State University cultivars and Jerry Lehman’s two named cultivars. For the wannabe-grower in a hurry, there is a summary of the best cultivars for several factors, and for the person who has no time to read or experiment, Michael suggests sticking with the long-proven wild-sourced cultivars Overleese, Sunflower, PA Golden and NC-1.

Harvesting Pawpaws

Harvesting is both art and science. Under-ripe pawpaws can lead to belly-ache. Mishandling pawpaws can quickly lead to poor results. Windfalls that have lain on the ground for several days will likely be funky in smell and bitter in taste – don’t let your first experience of pawpaw be like this! The ideal is to hand-pick ripe fruit, and as the transition from rock-hard unripe pawpaws to ripe is very sudden, you’ll end up checking the same fruits more than once. Some cultivars change color, others don’t. Check daily! Ripening can finish later if they have begun ripening before you pick. The harvest period lasts 2-4 weeks (July in the Deep South, late August and early September in central Virginia, October in the Great Lakes region).

Photo Michael Judd
Post-harvest

Be very gentle in handling these delicate fruits. Eat within 72 hours of picking or refrigerate (for 1-3 weeks, with the longer period being in a large cooler with a big air volume) Pawpaws exude large quantities of ethylene when ripening. This colorless, odorless gas causes other crops in the same storage space to ripen more, or to sprout, or in the case of carrots, to taste bitter. Alternatively, pulp and freeze (or freeze and pulp). This is one of the places where you learn time- and money-saving secrets – freeze the fruits whole, remove from the freezer after 12 hours, warm them for half an hour, then peel as if they were potatoes, pry them open and pop the seeds out cleanly. Put the frozen chunks back into the freezer until you have more time. There are tips about keeping the yellow color, and which food mills and sauce-makers can pulp pawpaws.

There’s info on the nutritional content of pawpaws: 3.5 oz (100 g) provides 80 calories, including 1.2 g of protein and fat, and all of the essential amino acids.

Pawpaw Recipes

The next section of the book is recipes and mouth-watering photos. (Cheesecake! Ice-cream!) First are the recommendations on eating pawpaws fresh off the tree, and in other ways raw. Next are the cautions about baking with flour which can mask the more subtle flavors and leave something that could be mistaken for banana pie or butterscotch tart. There are vital guidelines on how to use pawpaw pulp in recipes, and what not to do (do not boil or dry the fruit). Many pawpaw recipes are high in cream, butter and sugar, which you might relish. However, here are also some recipes that are healthier, including some vegan recipes. There’s also a simple recipe for unsweetened pawpaw jam, which they cook on a rocket stove, and one for pawpaw butter that includes some sugar and some bourbon. And beer, mead and kombucha.

Pawpaws and Permaculture

The first appendix is “Pawpaws and Permaculture” – here’s one of the special things I like about this book. First we learn about this particular tree crop, and bit by bit we see practices we associate with permaculture – swales, mulches, companion plants. It all makes sense. Here is an explanation for those of us who are not filled with religious zeal at every awed utterance of the word “permaculture”. I’m not the type to believe a theory then fit my practice into that theory. I’d rather practice, observe, learn about options, choose from the most likely to succeed, evaluate, tweak, do a small experiment with a different method, and so on. Here’s “Permaculture for the Rest of Us.” In the past I have been put off by the religious zealotry of some permaculturists – the all or nothing, good or bad, I-know-better-than-you attitude, which does not lead us closer to co-operation, mutual learning or world peace. This book is refreshingly different from that branch of permaculture and I am very grateful for that.

I also got insight into what permaculturists mean when they talk of “Food Forests”. They don’t actually mean acres of food trees. They mean small clumps of trees within a lawn. Agroforestry is the name for the type of farming that includes trees as windbreaks and crops, and pawpaws are a good candidate for inclusion. Goats don’t eat pawpaw trees! In this part of the book, the place for pawpaws in Hügelkultur beds (piles of wood covered in soil); greywater berms (shallow trenches funneling sink water into the landscape; and rain gardens (areas that store rainwater in the soil to irrigate plants) is explored.

Commercial Pawpaw Farming

For those venturing into commercial pawpaw growing and marketing, there is a profile of Deep Run Pawpaw Orchard in Maryland, where trees are 8 ft (2.4 m) apart in rows 15 ft apart (4.6 m), and produce 6,000 lbs (2.7 metric tons) annually. Their best varieties are Shenandoah, Allegheny, Susquehanna and PA Golden, and grafting onto wild rootstock has given them better drought tolerance. They have tips on commercial-scale pruning, thinning and fertilizing.

Onward and Upward

I was thrilled to learn that the zebra swallowtail butterfly has a single host – the pawpaw! We have these butterflies (in small numbers) and I didn’t know much about them. The caterpillars do not do significant damage to the leaves of grown trees, and the acetogenins from the leaves make the insect unpalatable to predators.

I have one little quibble with this book, which is that it would have benefited from tighter editing in some places. It’s not at all verbose or convoluted, but sometimes a piece of info has become detached from its colleagues, and occasionally it gets repeated. But all the info here is good, and actionable. And if you don’t read the whole book at one sitting, as I did, it won’t even be a problem!

After you’ve enjoyed the book, if you are anywhere nearby, book in for one of their open days between March and June, and in September and October at Long Creek Homestead near Frederick, Maryland. The annual Pawpaw Festival is in September. No! No! don’t just show up at their home at some random time of your choosing! See their website www.ecologiadesign.com

The Judds’ round house. Long Creek Homestead 
Photo Michael Judd