I've long been intrigued by foraging and how nature can provide a plentiful buffet. I grew up gathering chestnuts, wild blueberries and ramps, but pawpaws were an elusive fruit. I can remember visiting pawpaw patches as a child, but I never saw or tasted a pawpaw fruit until I was in my 20s.
As I grew as a gardener and relocated to Winston-Salem, I began to notice that more people were interested in the growing, cultivating and harvesting of pawpaws (asimina triloba). Most years, the Forsyth County office of the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service hosts a pawpaw festival, celebrating this unique native fruit. Native plant enthusiasts tout its importance in the modern landscape. Commercial and ornamental nurseries are putting them into production. It is clear that the pawpaw's popularity extends beyond its fruit.
On an old family farm in Pfafftown, partners Max Nottke and Clara Reitz are realizing just how special their pawpaw orchard truly is. In the summer of 2019, they moved from Boston, Mass., to Pfafftown, after inheriting the farm from Max's grandparents. Before his grandparents, the farm belonged to Max's great-grandaunts, two of whom were avid gardeners, a trait that seems to run in the family.
Max's grandfather Jim Nottke is a well-respected local gardener passionate about raising butterflies and cultivating pawpaw trees. Jim planted many different pawpaw trees in the existing orchard, which are now in various stages of maturity. Max explained that his grandfather became very interested with pawpaw trees because they attract the zebra swallowtail butterfly.
“I think he got into the pawpaw as an extension of his butterfly addiction,” Max said. “So, because of that, he was planting host plants to attract all sorts of stuff.”
Upon moving to their new home, Max and Clara started Bashavia Gardens, a gardening business dedicated to creating sustainable landscapes that support native wildlife and pollinators. Living on and working from the family farm is inspiring for this young couple, as the house and property date back to 1883.
“My grandmother is a Hauser, a descendant of Martin Hauser, one of the original Bethania Moravians,” Max said. “So, the roots run pretty deep.”
Their farm is situated on 86 acres, which includes a greenhouse, several outbuildings, an orchard and a historic landscape. Although their landscape clients are their bread and butter, Max and Clara are very excited about cultivating business and interest from their pawpaws. Their orchard includes many other mature fruit trees — plum, pear and apples — but tending the pawpaw trees is the main goal.
“That's my plan, to focus on the pawpaws as an orchard production element,” Max said. “And part of the reason is they're so much lower maintenance than having pears or plums or apples.”
“I think for some folks, they're intimidated by the concept of having fruit trees. Maintaining an orchard sounds like a steep activation energy for them. A big part of it is the pruning, but pawpaws don't water-sprout. The zebra swallowtail is essentially the only pest that the pawpaw has. Deer won't touch them, or any animals, really.”
Reitz pointed out the value of planting a fruiting tree indigenous to the area.
“They're so self-sufficient,” Reitz said. “After they're established, there is nothing you have to do, other than selective pruning.”
There are many different varieties of pawpaws in the Bashavia Gardens' orchard, many of which Jim Nottke procured from renowned pawpaw growers Jim Davis and Neal Peterson. Some of these include Rebecca's Gold and Peterson's Special.
“The named varieties as a whole have larger fruit than what you would typically find in the wild,” Max said. “A lot of them have been selected to have less seeds, which is a very off-putting part of the pawpaw fruit for a lot of people. And then there's a whole variance of bitterness verses sweet.”
Flavor is one of the most versed conversations surrounding the pawpaw fruit. It is most often described as having a banana flavor, but its texture has as much to do with it as the piquancy.
“Some of them are almost avocado-like, very mild and creamy,” Reitz said. “Other ones are almost mango, pineapple and tropical. It really does vary from tree to tree.”
Not only are Nottke and Reitz maintaining the pawpaw orchard, but they're spreading their pawpaws into surrounding gardens. They've been propagating and grafting from their orchard over the past year and have had a lot of success. Bashavia Gardens is focused on creating tame and tasteful wildlife habitats for their garden clients, so pawpaws make a perfect addition for a sustainable landscape. And educating fellow gardeners about pawpaw cultivation is very important.
“In the wild, they're an under-story tree, and they occur naturally along the creek bottoms,” Max said. “But they can be in full sun, and they actually produce the best fruit in full sun. They'll stay more compact and wide in full sun, as opposed to reaching for the light.”
Nottke and Reitz stressed that young trees are photo-sensitive and require sun protection, though. Until they reach about 18 inches tall, they should be planted or placed in a shady area. Once they get a little size on them, they can take the full sun. And if you want reliable fruit production, it's important that you plant at least two different varieties to insure good pollination.
“Pawpaw flowers are perfect flowers, meaning they have both male and female flowers, which sounds great,” Max said. “The unfortunate thing is that they (the flowers) are not at the same time. So that's why it's recommended you have two or three together, just to make sure that you're getting some that are going through the flower stages at different times.”
As with any food crop, a good harvest is ultimately dependent on the weather. And although our local weather for this year has been relatively mild, 2020 was not the year for pawpaws. A mid-May freeze wiped out the pawpaw blooms at Bashavia Gardens, which was the general trend among other local pawpaw growers. Nottke and Reitz said they may have harvested 5% of their potential crop.
Most all local growers experienced some loss with their pawpaw crops this year, said Derek Morris, an agricultural technician at Forsyth Cooperative Extension.
"It depends on where one is located but I guess most of the pawpaws I am aware of in the county came out to be about 50% of a normal year," Morris said.
Despite the lack of fruit this season, Nottke and Reitz are enthusiastic about next year's crop and the many ways in which they can incorporate pawpaws into their livelihood and community conversation. They’re also happy to be establishing roots on their family farm. They were both gardening together before they made the move to North Carolina.
“We were looking for a slower pace,” Reitz said. “I think it was good timing for us. Gardening in Boston was the only slow thing that we got to do. And getting to do that all the time now is really wonderful.”
Amy Dixon is an assistant horticulturist at Reynolda Gardens of Wake Forest University. Gardening questions or story ideas can be sent to her at www.facebook.com/WSJAmyDixon or firstname.lastname@example.org, with "gardening" in the subject line. Or write to Amy Dixon in care of Features, Winston-Salem Journal, 418 N. Marshall St., Winston-Salem, NC 27101