With a new investment by the North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (NCR-SARE) grants program to develop and promote woodland Pawpaw production practices SENR caught up with Matt Davies, associate professor of Soil and Plant Community Restoration and lead investigator on the new project to find out more.
SENR Q&A with faculty member Matt Davies on woodland Pawpaw Production
SENR: Why study Pawpaw production?
Dr. Davies: Pawpaw (not to be confused with papaya which is also sometimes referred to as pawpaw) is Ohio's State Native Fruit. It's a common tree in the sub-canopy of woodlands throughout our region and most famous for its large fruit. The tree is a member of the custard apple family and most other species in the group are found in more tropical climates. The fruit itself is incredible - they grow in clusters on the tree and individual fruit can sometimes get up to more than a pound in weight. Their flavour is also amazing - a combination of mango, pineapple, banana and caramel with a creamy, custard like texture.
"I'm working with colleagues across the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences to try to bring pawpaw to the people."
They're completely unique. Pawpaw has been a staple of regional diets for millennia - they were collected by Native Americans and sustained Lewis and Clarke on their expedition. Today they occupy a niche but growing market - there are pawpaw beers, wines, ice-creams, cakes and multiple pawpaw festivals throughout Ohio and beyond. Despite all this they are surprisingly hard to come by and, when available, tend to attract a lot of excitement and very high prices. I'm working with colleagues across the College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) to try and bring pawpaw to the people.
SENR: How did you become interested in woodland Pawpaw production?
Dr. Davies: As I'm not from the USA I knew nothing about pawpaw when I first arrived at Ohio State in 2015. I was very lucky to advise an undergrad called Libby Brigner who was originally interested in invasive species. She went out to scout some honeysuckle-invaded plots at the Olentangy River Wetlands and came back saying "Can I change my topic to work on pawpaws, they're not fruiting at the Wetlands and I want to know why". My response was well sure but what on earth is a pawpaw? Libby collected great data on how productivity varied between woodland stands and showed that light availability is a key constraint on fruit production. I was nervous for that first year of the project as we were doing all this research but I'd never tasted the fruit. It was worth the wait when they finally ripened that autumn!
SENR: How will this new funding advance our understanding of what works and what doesn’t work to improve fruit yield and quality?
"More than half of the available fruit on the market are collected in the wild from woodland patches. Unfortunately, trees in woodlands tend to produce few if any fruit and their quality can vary massively. Our grant will investigate how we can sustainably manage forest stands to increase production."
Dr. Davies: We've been very fortunate to secure funding from a range of sources to look at methods to grow pawpaw in orchards, harvest better quality fruit and improve the pawpaw economy. This has included funding from the Ohio Department of Agriculture, Warner Endowment for On-farm Research and the USDA AFRI scheme. All of these projects have primarily focused on orchard production. The new grant from SARE is focused on woodlands. More than half of the available fruit on the market are collected in the wild from woodland patches. Unfortunately, trees in woodlands tend to produce few if any fruit and their quality can vary massively. Our grant will investigate how we can sustainably manage forest stands to increase production. This will include thinning and light manipulation, invasive control and establishment of new woodland patches. We'll also be investigating how pollination and the source of pollen affects fruit yield and quality. In addition to tracking pawpaw production, we'll also be examining how our interventions affect forest health. Many of Ohio's forests face significant challenges from invasive species and a transition from oak-hickory dominance to species of less value for ecosystem services such as wildlife and timber. We hope to demonstrate that managing for pawpaw can provide an economic incentive for woodland restoration.
SENR: There’s a plot of Pawpaw trees growing on The Ohio State University campus at the Waterman Agricultural and Natural Resources Laboratory. What’s happening there? Are students involved?
Dr. Davies: We have planted replicated research orchards at Waterman and South Centers in Piketon. We're trialling multiple varieties, and examining tree grafting success, with and without irrigation. The orchards have been a real labour of love and are actually some of the largest currently in existence - we've got more than three dozen varieties at present. The trees haven't quite reached fruiting age so we're investigating how management and stock type affect tree survival, growth and water stress.
We're very fortunate to have Environmental Science Graduate Program (ESGP) student Sarah Francino leading this work. Sarah completed her MS thesis with me and Prof. Joe Scheerens (Horticulture and Crop Science) on pawpaw fruiting success and fruit quality. She's now working on her PhD and will also be leading the SARE project. There's lots of opportunities for undergrads to get involved and help with the research. We do a lot of outreach work at both Waterman and Piketon and have run grafting workshops and field tours for our stakeholders.
SENR: It's been fascinating to hear about the origins of this research, how it has evolved and how this new investment will help develop woodland Pawpaw production. Thanks for sharing about your Pawpaw research and outreach.
Dr. Davies: Thanks! I'd like to quickly acknowledge all the amazing colleagues in CFAES who are collaborating on this work - Joe Scheerens (HCS), Guil Signorini (HCS), Brad Bergefurd (HCS), Melanie Ivey (Plant Path), Diane Miller (HCS), Chris Simons (FST), Rafael Jimenez-Flores (FST), Thom Harker (OSU Piketon), Dewey Mann (Waterman Farm) and Ann Chanon (Extension). This really is a team effort. Much of our work would also have been impossible without huge support from Dr. Ron Powell of the Ohio Pawpaw Growers Association.
To learn even more about Pawpaw research and outreach at The Ohio State University watch the February 2021 Ohio Woodland Stewards Program webinar, "Picking Pawpaw Patches -Managing Woodlands for Pawpaw Production" with Dr. Davies.