Have you ever tried a “hillbilly mango,” or maybe a “Kentucky banana” or a “hipster” banana? More officially called a pawpaw, this sweet fruit is the state of Ohio’s “Native State Fruit” and is the largest edible fruit native to the United States.
A pawpaw, which grows in clusters and ripens in late summer into October, has a flavor that is often compared to a banana, but also has tastes of mango, vanilla, and citrus, giving it a slightly tropical taste. When a pawpaw is ripe, it should fall right into your hand from the tree. One could find a native pawpaw tree all throughout Ohio, and most of the eastern United States. If you own wooded land around Champaign County, you might just even have a pawpaw tree or two hidden somewhere.
Locally, Champaign County is home to Valley View Woodlands, one of the largest pawpaw orchards in the state. Marc and Shary Stadler live and tend to the farm that they so passionately have grown into what it is today. Marc is the fifth generation of his family to live and work on the farm, but first to grow pawpaws. Marc grew up on the farm, went off to college, and always thought he’d come back “someday.” After college Marc headed to Chicago to work in the trading markets. That’s where he met Shary and they eventually would move back to Marc’s family farm in 2003.
Valley View Woodlands, located north of Westville, was not always a pawpaw farm. According to Marc, there were always some native trees throughout the farm that bore the fruit, but they never paid much attention to them. It wasn’t until he lived in Chicago that he noticed this “food trend” happening. After living on the farm for a while doing other things, the Stadlers decided to pursue growing their own pawpaws in 2011. Currently the orchard has about 300 trees, all planted by Marc and Shary.
They became affiliated with Kentucky State University, making their farm the university’s “northern outpost research orchard.” The Stadlers would report back to the university a variety of information regarding the trees and their fruit. Currently, The Ohio State University is doing research on the orchard. OSU researchers collect data on various things, and have even set up a fruit-catching net system that they have put under several rows of trees in the orchard.
Marc and Shary start their trees by seeds they collect as they eat their pawpaws. During the ripe season, once they eat a pawpaw and retrieve the seed, the seeds are bagged and refrigerated. About 3 months later, the Stadlers will start several hundred a year in pots in their basement, under dim lights, since the trees typically thrive in the beginning of their life as an “understory” plant. From the basement the trees eventually graduate to the greenhouse under about 50% shade. During the second year of growing in a pot, Marc grafts the tree with cuttings from pawpaw trees that Marc clips himself from the orchard. Once that graft is firmly established into the plant, they’ll be planted in the orchard or sold.
According to Marc (and the internet, food magazines, etc. over the last decade) pawpaws are having their moment. They’re growing in popularity. Fresh pawpaws, which can be hard to come by because of their short counter life, can cost around $10 a pound.
Marc and Shary immediately agreed that their favorite way to eat a pawpaw is to simply cut it in half and scoop it out. However they’ve tried pawpaws many different ways including smoothies, beer, and in sauces. Their second favorite was pawpaw ice cream, and recently they enjoyed pawpaw muffins and a cake that had a layer of pawpaw preserves made by friends.
When the fruit in the orchard begins to ripen, the Stadlers sell their pawpaws in a few different ways. They have wholesale purchasers who come to them, including a wholesale purchaser all the way from Detroit who makes the trip to the farm almost every weekend during the ripe season to sell the pawpaws at a larger international market. They also sell locally at the online virtual farmers market called “Locally Grown,” as well as take what they have to the Ohio Pawpaw Festival.
The Ohio Pawpaw Festival is held each year in September in Albany, Ohio. This year’s festival is Sept. 15-17. The festival’s website boasts that it is “a fun-filled, educational community event celebrating one of America’s largest native tree fruits, the pawpaw (Asimina triloba).” This all-weekend event highlights the rich history and future possibilities of the pawpaw through delectable food and beverages, and a full line-up of presentations and activities that cover pawpaw growing, cooking, genetics, medical use and other topics related to sustainability. Special events at the festival include competitions for the best and biggest pawpaw, a pawpaw cook-off, a best pawpaw-related work of art and the ever-popular pawpaw-eating contest.
There is even a National Pawpaw Day recognized each year on the third Thursday in September, this year being on Sept. 21.
Reach the writer at UDCeditor@aimmediamidwest.com