Earlier this year, in May, I got together with a friend to do some pawpaw grafting. This friend, who lives in the Allegheny Valley, northeast of Pittsburgh, was ready to say goodbye to one of his oldest pawpaw trees. Grown from the seed of fruit gathered near the C&O Canal, it just wasn’t very good.
As the seedling grew to fruit-bearing age, so too did a number of the cultivars my friend had also collected and planted. Compared to these named varieties, this seedling’s fruit was too small, its flavor bland and bitter. “They look kinda like short green hot dogs, and drop from the tree without any color break whatsoever,” he said. The fruit paled in comparison, and it seemed a waste of valuable growing space.
My friend had named this original seedling Charlie, after his good friend who had gathered and sent him the seed from which it grew.
But now it was time for Charlie to die.
Or rather, Charley didn’t actually die. Charlie became root-stock.
I’ll admit it–chopping down a mature pawpaw tree was difficult to do. Not physically, but emotionally. Once I had sawed through it, though, it was time to move on. We prepared ourselves to graft.
A few weeks prior, my friend attended a workshop on inlay bark grafting at Kentucky State University. The university, along with Neal Peterson, are conducting experiments with this particular grafting technique. Below is a picture I took of an inlay bark graft at KSU’s research orchard in 2016. The amount of growth shown below is from a single season, just a few month’s worth of time.
To do this graft you chop down a tree to a stump (my friend chose to leave a single nurse branch). You then make parallel incisions into a section of the stump’s bark, the distance between cuts being equal to the width of your scion wood. The stump’s bark is then pried loose, gently and carefully, but not off. A flap of sorts is created. Meanwhile, your scion wood is carved on either side to fit into the bark opening, this flap, and then slides behind the stump’s bark. Finally, we wrapped the graft union with grafting tape, and were done. [Note: two grafts were performed on the Charlie root stock, just in case one did not “take.” One did, the other did not.]
Months earlier, in late winter, my friend had collected scion wood from his other pawpaw trees, and stored them in his refrigerator. The variety he chose to graft over his Charlie root stock, taken from his scion wood collection, was Susquehanna, a Peterson Pawpaws selection.
Now in early September–a little over three months later–my friend says his inlay grafts are thriving (he did a few that day). The one we did together is already at five feet, and still growing. Five feet of new growth in just one, short, Pennsylvania growing season.
“The leaves of that graft [over Charlie] are 13 inches long and 7 inches across, the biggest pawpaw leaves I have ever seen…I think the fact that they are all near the house gives them good protection from wind. They’re just all growing like crazy, but Potomac leads them all approaching 7 feet and still going. The mature trees have stopped producing new growth, unlike the grafts.”