Way Down Yonder in the Pawpaw Patch


What may be the largest pawpaw patch in North Carolina belongs to Wynn Dinnsen, owner of Full of Life Farms nursery in Chatham County. 

Dinnsen, 63, didn’t set out with such an ambition. He fell into it after tasting a pawpaw for the first time about 20 years ago while working as a landscaper. One day on the job, a man installing solar panels held up the strange, mango-like fruit and asked him how to grow it. Dinnsen didn’t have any advice but enjoyed that one for lunch and set out to learn more. 

If you are as unfamiliar with pawpaws as Dinnsen was, here’s what you need to know: They grow throughout the Southeast and as far north as Ohio. Their flavor is compared to a mango or a banana. Their texture is similar to a custard. Their aroma is tropical and distinctive. (Your refrigerator may smell like pawpaws for weeks after they are gone.) 

Dinnsen grew up in Smithfield, N.C., studied agronomy at N.C. State University and became a landscaper and nurseryman. When Dinnsen wanted to learn more about pawpaws, he connected with an N.C. State professor running a pawpaw trial who allowed him to collect seeds from any fallen fruit. In 2001, Dinnsen took those seeds and planted a pawpaw patch: 280 trees on less than an acre in a valley on his 26-acre Chatham County property. 

Like many plant breeders, Dinnsen took diligent notes on the fruit from each of those 280 trees. Today, he only sells seedlings from his best 15 trees, determined by taste and yield. 

Dinnsen’s trees produce about 2,000 pounds of fruit, most of which he sells whole fresh or frozen, to breweries like Fullsteam Brewery in Durham, cideries like Bull City Ciderworks, also in Durham, and a handful of chefs, such as Colin Bedford at Fearrington House in Pittsboro and Isiah Allen at the Eddy Pub in Saxapahaw. He also supplied pawpaws for the harvest dinner shown in the “A Chef’s Life” series finale, which will air at 9 p.m. Oct. 22 on PBS stations. 

If you are intrigued by pawpaws, you can purchase trees from Full of Life Farms by mail. Dinnsen sells them year-round. The cost is $10 per year; so a one-year-old seedling cost $10, a two-year-old seedling cost $20, etc. To place an order, send an email to wynn@triplants.com or visit fulloflifefarms.com

Photo courtesy of Debbie Roos