In the height of fall, the Cornell Orchards store on Route 366 offers a stunning variety of apples, some familiar, others unusual, some centuries old, others newly bred. Other goodies are also available, like cider, grapes, pears, squash, maple syrup, and jams.
But off to the side, a small pile of oblong fruits fill a basket. The sign reads: "Pawpaws $2/lb."
The homely pawpaw fruits are light green, with some large brown splotches. You can cut them in half, remove the seeds (about the size of lima beans), and scoop out the custardy flesh. They smell and taste quite tropical, often described as a mix of banana, guava, and pineapple. They grow on small trees with big broad leaves.
Although their taste and look is reminiscent of the tropics, pawpaws are native to North America, including New York State.
The pawpaws in the Cornell Orchards Store are from an experiment that Ian Merwin, Cornell Professor of Horticulture, started in 1999. On the Cornell research farm in Lansing, near Cayuga Lake, 332 trees of 28 different varieties grow. "We are evaluating all the general aspects of this native but little studied fruit species: survival, yield, growth, fruit attributes, pollination ecology, etc," he says.
After a decade of research, Merwin says the biggest surprise is how well the pawpaws grow here. "[They] have done better here than in many other regions of the US that were thought to be more in its comfort zone," he says.