17 years ago, Richard and Judy Bono hosted their first pawpaw event at Blue Moon, a restaurant in downtown York. At the time, the couple were excited to share their enthusiasm for this forgotten native fruit with their friends and advocates of the Slow Food movement. Their passion for pawpaws started a year prior, after visiting Deep Run Pawpaw Orchard, just outside of Westminster, Maryland. Seeing Jim and Donna Davis’ pawpaw orchard firsthand, the Bonos were inspired by the potential to cultivate pawpaws, an otherwise impossible orchard fruit.
The first event was a huge success; about 80 people were in attendance. The restaurant’s chef, David Le Heron, orchestrated a culinary symphony, incorporating delectable pawpaw fruit into each course. Following the first pawpaw dinner, the Bonos began to sell the fruits every September, starting at the Central Market and then at the Gardener of the Owl Valley, a native garden and gift shop run by Judy at her home. For many years, the York County Pawpaw Festival was a humble event, just a few folding tables at the bottom of the Bono Family driveway. But over the years, the event grew as more and more people began to appreciate Slow Food, foraging, and organic foods.
Today, the York County Pawpaw Festival is in its 17th year and serves approximately 1800 visitors. The event is held annually at the Horn Farm Center, where Dick Bono manages a small pawpaw orchard. Dick, York City Architect Emeritus and cofounder of York County Farm and Natural Lands Trust, was heavily involved at the Horn Farm Center since its founding. At the time, he was determined to demonstrate that cultivating a variety of pawpaws was possible. After some experimentation at home, Dick broke ground on his orchard at the Horn Farm in 2012, starting with 24 trees.
“I made a whole lot of mistakes in those early years,” says Dick. “Nine years later, the orchard has expanded to 48 trees and 20 varieties. I couldn’t do it without Tim Hamulack, who is a talented helper and fruit tree enthusiast.”
Dick continues to grow a wide variety of pawpaw cultivars in the pawpaw orchard. His goal is to produce consistently abundant yields, year after year. He follows the work of Neal Peterson, who experiments with developing new pawpaw varieties. Dick notes that while the Peterson varieties are often named after rivers, their names do not necessarily indicate where those cultivars were found.
The pawpaw is a naturally organic fruit – it resists almost all pests, and it experiences less browsing by wild animals than most other orchard fruits. What is most unique about the pawpaw is that it is truly seasonal. The pawpaw has little to no shelf life, which means it will never be commercially produced. The fruits mature in late August through mid-September. During this short window of time, the Susquehanna River region, as well as much of the eastern United States, is a pandora’s box of this highly nutritious, anti-oxidant-rich fruit. Late summer in York County is a chance to enjoy our bio-region’s natural abundance, just as the Susquehannock’s did years ago, by filling their bellies with pawpaw before facing the harsh winter.
In recent years, pawpaws have developed somewhat of a cult following, with pawpaw fanatics traveling across several state lines to get a taste of this unique fruit. In the past few years, people have traveled from upstate New York, Pittsburgh, and even Atlanta, Georgia to attend the York County Pawpaw Festival. In 2019, Bono Family estimated that they sold over 2000 pounds of pawpaw at the festival.
This year, the York County Pawpaw Festival will be held on September 18 & 19th at the Horn Farm Center. The event will feature local food vendors, artisans, and community organizations. Of course, the true stars of the show are the pawpaw fruit, both wild and cultivated varieties, and pawpaw trees, which will be available for purchase. Visitors can also enjoy tours of the farm and pawpaw orchard. We hope that you will join us to celebrate all the things that we love about pawpaws.
The amazing pawpaw is staging a comeback in American consciousness. This long overlooked fruit has always been with us, growing in the understory of our natural lands, especially in the river valleys and surrounding hills. Scientists believe that it evolved as a food source for now extinct megafauna, such as the giant sloth and wooly mammoth. At one time, Americans were more familiar with this truly American fruit, which is native to the United States east of the Mississippi River, and currently ranges from northern Florida to southern Ontario in the east, as far west as Nebraska and Texas, and as far north as Michigan.
Native Americans cultivated pawpaws as a food source, as it was the largest edible fruit indigenous to the land that is now the United States. In fact, the Shawnee even had a pawpaw month in their calendar. Europeans’ first documented encounter with the pawpaw was from Hernando DeSoto’s Mississippi Expedition in 1541, where one of the chroniclers noted its cultivation by the native people. In addition to the already belligerent nature of the expedition, a far more significant negative effect of DeSoto’s journey was the introduction of European diseases to much of the continent’s native population, resulting in widespread death from diseases against which they had no immunity. Scholars estimate that anywhere from 50 to 100 million native people lived in the Americas prior to European contact, with an estimated 90% of them perishing in the ensuing years. It is not hard to imagine that in pre-contact America, many established civilizations with thriving agricultural plantings covered much of the landscape–a landscape which would eventually revert to wilderness after the devastating epidemics had run their course. While pawpaws and other edible plants now grow wild throughout our lands, it is probable that many are descended from intentionally planted and managed Native orchards and forests.
The pawpaw has been valued by many throughout our history. George Washington claimed it as his favorite fruit, and pawpaws were grown at Mount Vernon and Jefferson’s Monticello. Jefferson is said to have believed the pawpaw had potential for cultivation, and sent seeds to Europe as an example of a uniquely American plant. The widespread fruit even proved useful in feeding the famous expedition of Lewis and Clark. They subsisted on pawpaws for three days at one point in their epic journey.
Pawpaws, which ripen for a short few weeks in September in our Southcentral Pennsylvania region, are a delicate fruit, not suitable for shipping. Easily bruised, they are not ideal for large scale commercial production. But they have always been a valued source of food for foragers and people living off the land. Throughout our history, pawpaws were a welcome treat for all kinds of people. From enslaved people to Presidents, the pawpaw has provided a delicious, nutritious treat for many. About the size and shape of a mango, the pawpaw contains a custardy flesh that tastes somewhat like a cross between a banana and a mango, interspersed by brown, lima bean-sized seeds.
Nutritionally, pawpaws are loaded with nutrients–they are an excellent source of vitamin C, and are also high in magnesium, copper, iron, and manganese. They are also a good source of potassium, amino acids, riboflavin, niacin, phosphorus, calcium, and zinc. These nutrients are found in pawpaws to a similar or greater degree than they are in bananas, apples, and oranges, all while containing a similar fiber content.
With a tendency to not be afflicted by pests or disease, pawpaws were a dependable source of food for people throughout history. Early American settlers relied on pawpaw groves for their fruit needs while they established their non-native orchards. The ubiquitous pawpaw provided names for places such as Paw Paw, Ohio, West Virginia, and at least a half a dozen other states. It even inspired folk melodies, such as Way down yonder in the Pawpaw Patch. During the Great Depression, the pawpaw was nicknamed “the poor man’s banana,” as it was an asset for foragers in tough times.
With the advent of supermarkets and the widespread availability of shipped produce after World War 2, the pawpaw receded from popular knowledge, as most Americans grew ever more distant from their once vibrant relationship with wild foods.
Meanwhile, several researchers made efforts to domesticate the pawpaw, and cultivars were developed, beginning around the turn of the century. Pawpaw breeding resurged in 1985, when R. Neal Peterson began a large-scale breeding program with the cooperation of the University of Maryland. Numerous named varieties have resulted from these efforts, and domestic production is slowly taking form. Pawpaw research is still a niche area of study, however, with little research funding available. Aside from private individuals, Kentucky State University is currently the only institution carrying on this work.
In the early 21st Century, with an explosion of farmers markets, and development of the slow food movement, pawpaws are now becoming more well-known again. Slow Food USA added the pawpaw to its Ark of Taste, further publicizing the nearly forgotten fruit.
With the Horn Farm Center’s emphasis on native plants, it seemed only appropriate that the pawpaw would find a welcome place in our landscape. About a decade ago, local Slow Food USA member and founding member of the Horn Farm, Richard Bono approached the Center with a proposal to establish a pawpaw orchard at the Horn Farm. HFC agreed to it, and the orchard was planted. It takes about seven years from planting a pawpaw until it bears its first fruit. With this understanding, Bono has faithfully and patiently tended his orchard over the years, and his orchard is finally beginning to bear fruit. Dick and his wife Judy have shared their enthusiasm for pawpaws over the years by organizing hugely popular pawpaw dinners and festivals. Click here for more information on this year’s Pawpaw Festival event at the Horn Farm Center.
The humble pawpaw is once more claiming the respect that it is due. As knowledge of this delightful fruit spreads, our national palette is notably enriched. More and more, pawpaws are being rediscovered and planted by home gardeners, and if you ever get a chance to taste one, you’ll know why.
“The Amazing Pawpaw” was written by Horn Farm Center Board Member, David Dietz
David Dietz has farmed in Hellam Township for most of his life. Growing up, he helped every summer on his parents’ truck patch farm, and he helped tend the roadside stand on the Lincoln Highway about a mile west of Wrightsville. Always interested in history, David earned a BSE in Social Studies from Millersville University in 1995, and spent several years teaching. Eventually, however, his love of the land drew him back to farming. In 2002, David started vending produce at York Central Market, where he continued until 2017. A founding member of the Horn Farm board, David helped start the Community Gardens and the Incubator Farm Project. Currently employed as the produce and dairy manager at Lemon Street Market in Lancaster, David is now interested more than ever in the challenges faced by local small-scale agriculture in a globalized commodity-driven economy. He is thrilled to see the Horn Farm Center leading with a vision for regenerative practices, learning from and working with nature. David is happily married to Waldorf teacher extraordinaire, Rochelle Dietz, and they have a delightful teenaged son, Gabriel.
If you reduce the world far enough, you lose all perspective of an ending or a beginning, cold or heat, chaos or balance. All that’s left are building blocks – remnants of a supernova – compounds brought to earth on ancient comets. The ability to isolate and focus on elements of a system both enhances our understanding of atomic structures, and at the same time, blinds us to the bigger picture in which we find ourselves living. The same is true for so much of our understanding. Science can at once clarify age old problems, redefine lifeways, and change long held beliefs. So often, science mimics theology in fervor and resolute believers. A powerful scientific lens, and reductionist thinking, can also make it harder to see systems and the connections by which each element is attached to another.
I have lived many lives in my forty years on this planet. I have read stacks of books piled high to the ceiling. I consume so many scientific papers it would seem I am working on a doctoral dissertation. I have done this in pursuit of purpose- explaining to myself what I am seeing, what I am feeling, and what I should do. I have dedicated my life to righting the wrongs my species seem hell bent on perpetrating. Human-driven climate change, human-driven extinction, human-driven habitat destruction, war, pandemics, poverty – the list plays on like horror movie plotlines.
Of Dreams and Wildness
One of the first plants I had a relationship with grew in an abandoned lot in New York City. Growing out of what seemed like gravel and concrete, this plant thrived defiantly among the rusty cars and human refuse.
My father would take me there to search for rabbits. We would pick up the roundest of rocks and fill our pockets with the perfect ammunition to fill a catapult’s leather pouch. Every careful step into our urban hunting ground filled my senses with the musky, earthy freshness of this silvery green plant. I learned almost twenty years later that this amazing pioneer species, which seemed impervious to the ammunition of extinction we build our society on, was mugwort- a dream enhancer.
I dream often of that time, the wild feeling of pulling back taut rubber, the snap of the slingshot, the jump of the rabbit as the rock hit its target. The blood stained gravel so vividly contrasted the rusty metal fence that borders this “wildness” in which we found ourselves. So many of my early memories are of plants we now call invasive: non-native plants brought to this land for a myriad of reasons.
Humans have always moved plants and seeds well outside their native ranges; a quality that is one of our ecological niches, but it is not unique to us. Many animals move seeds, each filling a specialized role in cultivating life along the vastness of geography. Large animals trek seeds miles away from parent plants. Humans have taken our role to the extreme. We no longer only move seeds but whole plants, birds, insects, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, fungi, bacteria, viruses, and on and on. Over the last few thousand years we have rearranged the floral and faunal composition of the entire planet. Moving species and creating novel ecosystems that have no historical precedent.
Today we find a world very different from our ancestors. In our forests, native black walnut trees act as trellises for Japanese vines. Birds pick berries off European privet. Spotted lanternflies suck sap from the native grapevine as it competes for sunlight and resources with a Japanese honeysuckle. Asian praying mantis eat ruby throated hummingbirds and they themselves are eaten by other native birds. European starlings fill the sky with synchronized movements, giving a glimpse into the past, shadowing the long-gone passenger pigeon that once darkened the sky.
This is what I see in the forests I tend. These new ecosystems flourish despite our species’ attempt to destroy them. These complex interactions flourish amidst the looming cultural idealism of native species superiority.
There is no doubt that native species have more connecting interactions with each other than in novel ecosystems. Relationships between pollinators and plants can stretch back millennia, while some novel interactions began mere months ago.
Here at the farm we prioritize natives, and in most cases, we plant them exclusively. We do so not because of rigid ideas against non-native species, but with a deep understanding that nature is complex and mysterious – knowing that we don’t always know how one piece interacts with another.
What we do know is that we do not know enough to recreate an entire ecosystem. We work with the understanding of what we know, and what we don’t. Our culture has become the dogma of black and white, right and wrong, native and non-native. Binary thinking in a grey, complex, non-binary world.
Curing Amnesia & Accepting What Is
The novelty of our predicament is mirrored in the novelty of our wild spaces and our amnesia of our place in nature. There is beauty in novel ecosystems. They are often the places where humanity can still interact with wildness without the rules created to protect wild spaces, which often keeps us separated from the wildness our psyche yearns for.
If I could wave a wand and put all the plants and animals back to their native lands, I would pull the excess co2 from the atmosphere. I would remove the dams that choke our rivers, reforest the jungles, the taiga, the temperate hardwood forests. I would bring back the animals we have lost at the immense densities we once had.
The skies would be filled with life. The songs of birds would deafen us. The insects would dazzle us with their hum and flutter. The rivers would be teeming with life so dense you could almost walk across the water on the backs of fish. The oceans would be a symphony of whale songs and breach the surface across the globe. The air would smell of blossoms and decay, the cities would be wiped clean and forests and savannas would grow in their stead.
As much as I daydream about these things I realize it’s just that. A daydream. It takes me back to those summer days in New York City – mugwort wafting its scent as I stalk behind the rusted hulk of a Buick. The wind from the Verrazano, salty with the smell of the ocean, my mind one with the task, my heart beating wildly as I drew back the rubber. That same scene has played out for humans before we were homo sapiens. And there I realize is the keystone: the connection with place is the “magic wand.”
The love for the wild, whether an abandoned lot or a national park, is what drives us deeper into connection.
Whether a rare native or a highly dispersive plant, the photosynthesis, the carbon sequestration, and the pollen, all act as a refuge for life that is quickly being paved, crushed, battered, and worst of all, forgotten.
I for one love all wild places, wild things and wild energies. Whether of this place or misplaced, each plant provides a service within the ecosystem. And while some prolific species can be challengingly aggressive, I have learned through listening, observation and humble stewardship that I can play a role in assisting nature in her infinite wisdom.
The greatest tragedy is not the spread of non-natives but the loss of relationship with place. The next time you venture out and try to see the world as wild and domestic, native and invasive, I challenge you to slow down and see the beautiful spectrum of life – striving, evolving and playing its part – within novel ecosystems.
About the Author – Wilson Alvarez
Wilson Alvarez is a certified permaculture designer, inventor, gardener, skilled tracker, bowyer, nature-awareness instructor, and writer from Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
For the past fourteen years, he has taught classes and workshops on bio-intensive agriculture, regenerative technology, foraging, hunting, trapping, tracking, and wilderness survival. Wilson has studied through the Wilderness Awareness School via the Kamana program, and he received his Permaculture Design Certificate via Susquehanna Permaculture. Wilson currently serves as the Woodland Steward at the Horn Farm Center in York, PA where he is implementing his research on biomimicry through the Reintegration Project. Learn more about Wilson’s work.