Kentucky State University researchers have spent the last 10 years perfecting a new variety of pawpaw that grows abundantly and tastes like mango, pineapple and banana.
Three nurseries have been licensed to sell what’s now officially known as KSU-Atwood, the first of several new pawpaw trees that KSU will release for cultivation.
The nurseries pay a royalty to the university for each tree sold, with the proceeds going toward research and educational opportunities for students.
“We only want to release the best pawpaws for people to grow,” said Kirk Pomper, KSU’s principal investigator of horticulture, as he stood among the pawpaw trees on the university’s research farm last week.
“That’s why it took us 10 years to get the first one.”
There are more than 50 pawpaw varieties in circulation today, but Pomper predicts KSU-Atwood will be popular with farmers. The tree produces lots of large pawpaws with a distinctive flavor.
“Pawpaws have a lot of potential in Kentucky, and they can be grown organically,” he said.
Pomper developed KSU-Atwood with co-investigators Sheri Crabtree and Jeremy Lowe. Crabtree says people new to pawpaws will like the variety because it has a mild mango flavor.
“Some of the pawpaws have a really strong or intense flavor that we might like because we’ve eaten a lot of pawpaws,” she said. “But beginners usually like a milder-flavored fruit.”
When it was released, the university held a naming contest and selected KSU-Atwood to honor one of the university’s longest serving and most influential presidents, Dr. Rufus Ballard Atwood.
During his 42-year tenure as president, KSU became accredited as a four-year college and graduated its first white student. He also led efforts for desegregated education in Kentucky in the 1940s.
The research facility on KSU’s campus is named for Atwood and his papers are housed on campus.
“He worked a lot with trying to improve Kentucky State and making it an accredited institution, and also with civil rights,” Pomper said.
“He’s someone we’ve known and we thought it would be a good idea to start with him.”
Researchers are working on five additional varieties, which could be sold in the next three to five years.
These varieties will be named for other African Americans who made significant contributions to the university.
Pawpaws are native to North America, but belong to the mostly tropical custard apple family. The name probably derived from a nickname for papaya, though the fruits are very different.
The creamy, custard-like fruit can be baked into pies, pastries or bread. It also makes a great ice cream, Pomper says.
Pawpaws are most often found at farmers markets, or specialty grocery stores. Good Foods Co-op in Lexington has sold them for $6 a pound, Pomper said.
“We kind of look at it as a gourmet food or a specialty food now,” he said. “Like with any new crop, it’s always slow to emerge.”
But there are signs the pawpaw could be going more mainstream.
Kroger and Melissa’s Certified Organic Produce, which supplies organic fruits and vegetables to Walmart stores, have expressed interest in selling pawpaws, Pomper said.
KSU-Atwood is headed to Nolin River Nut Tree Nursery in Upton, Ky., near Elizabethtown, Northwoods Nursery Inc. in Molalla, Ore., and Hartmann’s Plant Company in Lacota, Mich.
A dozen or more nurseries could eventually sell the variety, Pomper said.
University President Mary Sias called the release “an exciting new venture” that shows KSU researchers are leaders in their fields.
“They are working diligently to offer growers alternatives so they can remain competitive at farmers’ markets,” she said.
“The sale of this also will benefit further research in the area and our students so that we can announce many more discoveries in the future.”
For more information about KSU-Atwood, visit www.pawpaw.kysu.edu.