St. Thomas Lutheran Church sits at the corner of West Ellsworth and Haab Roads outside Ann Arbor, the bright white steeple standing in stark contrast to the freshly crimson and amber leaves. The church has been there since the 1870s when services were exclusively offered in German, according to a sign out front. Though that has since changed, the area around the church looks like a Midwestern wonderland that time forgot.
Just 12 miles outside the city center, wind blows over swaths of forgotten farmland, the husks of corn turned golden by the chill of late autumn. The same handful of residents walk up and down the dirt road all afternoon while the sporadic yelp of a lone dog breaks up the otherwise constant hum of insect wings.
It’s quaint, but for a couple of weekends in the fall, hundreds drive to Ellsworth from all over the Midwest to visit Ann Arbor native Marc Boone at his famous pawpaw orchard. The pawpaw — an enigmatic fruit commonly described as tasting like a cross between a banana and a mango — is indigenous to the Midwest in addition to Southern Canada and the East Coast. Unknown to most, the tropical-tasting fruit has quietly flourished in the U.S. since at least the 1500s. Still, it was not until 1987 that Boone started purposefully planting hundreds of pawpaw trees in Ann Arbor.
Boone now opens his orchard to the public when the pawpaws ripen in the fall, inviting the community to pick their own fruit. He said for some it’s become an annual tradition, and he often sees the same faces year after year.
“A lot of people who grew up where they had pawpaws come out just because they remember growing up in Eastern Kentucky or going out with their grandpa in the woods and picking pawpaws,” Boone said.
But it gets busier every fall, Boone told The Michigan Daily, with new people flocking to Ellsworth to sample America’s forgotten fruit.
This year, Boone saw more interest than ever before. Just during the first weekend in October, Boone said over 500 people stopped by the orchard, some coming from as far away as California. When the dust settled, however, Boone said the stampede of pawpaw pickers had left no fruit unturned. All of the ripe fruit Boone had seen hanging on the lower branches of the tree was gone by the following Monday morning.
“With 500 customers I was just overwhelmed,” Boone said. “I found one ripe pawpaw this morning, and I went through the whole orchard to find that.”
LSA senior Michael Wilson drove to Boone’s orchard to pick pawpaws later in October. Wilson said he had been wanting to try a pawpaw for years, so when he heard about Boone’s orchard from a friend, he knew he had to stop by. When he pulled up in front of the pawpaw patch, Wilson said the view didn’t disappoint.
“It’s crazy to me how large the orchard is,” Wilson said. “You’re just seeing these sort of tropical-looking fruit trees in the middle of Michigan.”
However, there were no ripe pawpaws on the trees for Wilson to taste, and as of Oct. 7, the patch has been closed to the public. Wilson said he had the chance to speak with Boone, who was able to scrounge up a singular pawpaw from earlier in the week. Wilson said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the pawpaw’s “vanilla mango” flavor and equally so by Boone himself. He said Boone’s quiet sense of humor was the opposite of the extroverted, zealous charisma Wilson expected would accompany a passion for such a bizarre fruit.
“He’s this soft-spoken guy,” Wilson said. “He doesn’t really seem to like the limelight, doesn’t really want the attention, but for some reason (he) has this U-Pick pawpaw patch. He just seems like a very eclectic man.”
With aviator-style spectacles and a full salt-and-pepper beard, Boone is reminiscent of a pawpaw himself — hardy on the outside with a gentle inner spirit. The 70-year-old has lived on the 160-acre plot of land located at 10032 Ellsworth Rd since the mid-1980s, though Boone told The Daily his grandmother owned the lot before him and his great-grandmother before that. Even so, the orchard that now occupies just over three acres of the property was all Boone’s doing.
“There’s nothing as dramatic as the pawpaw,” Boone said.
However, Boone’s story, and the journey of his 300 pawpaw seedlings, might almost be as compelling as the fruit itself.
Boone grew up on an Ann Arbor farm just miles away from the one he and his wife occupy today. After he graduated from high school, he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and work as a self-employed plumber. While working, he took Spanish, history and astronomy classes on and off at Washtenaw Community College, for which Boone joked he was “finally given an associate’s degree.”
He then moved around, switching back and forth between homes in Ann Arbor and Arizona for most of his adult life. It was during this time that Boone had his first encounter with the pawpaw. Brazilian author Jorge Amado was one of Boone’s favorites to read during his travels, and he became interested in Amado’s descriptions of exotic fruits, particularly the jackfruit. While researching the jackfruit, Boone kept coming across descriptions of another sweet, viridescent fruit: the pawpaw.
The operation to secure Boone’s first pawpaw was somewhat of a scandal, he told The Daily with a wink. After he started permanently living at his current home in Ann Arbor, one of his wife’s friends told him about a pawpaw patch near the Lower Huron Metropark in Belleville, Mich. Out of curiosity, Boone located the patch and slipped through a broken fence to steal his first taste of the “banana custard” flavor he associates with the pawpaw.
“It involved finding a hole in the fence, parking by a ‘no trespassing’ sign and picking pawpaws for about 15 minutes,” Boone said.
Admittedly, that first pawpaw wasn’t very good, Boone said. But he soon bought some pawpaw seeds from growers in Northern Michigan and Maryland and planted them in his backyard. At that time, he had no idea what was going to happen.
“There was no real plan here,” Boone said. “I just wanted to grow the world’s best pawpaw.”
While he waited for his pawpaw seedlings to bear fruit, a process which typically takes up to a decade, Boone planted peaches, plums and apples in his orchard. All of those fruit trees have since died. Against all odds, Boone said, all 300 pawpaw trees survived and continue producing a combined several thousand fruits every year.
“The pawpaws were an ideal tree,” Boone said. “All my peaches have died. My plums are infected with brown rot. My apples are pretty shabby over there. But the pawpaws are just sailing through with very little care.”
Boone retired from his career as a plumber about six years ago when he opened up his orchard to the Ann Arbor community. During pawpaw harvest season — which runs from late August through October — Boone spends several days a week outside in his orchard, helping pawpaw connoisseurs pick and purchase baskets of fruit.
His regular customers have traditionally included friends and neighbors in addition to local Ann Arbor businesses such as Zingerman’s Creamery, Bløm Meadworks and Argus Farm Stop. For almost as long as Boone has been publicly selling pawpaws, Zingerman’s has used his pawpaws to make pawpaw-flavored gelato while Bløm uses the fruit to whip up a pawpaw sour mead.
Representatives from Argus Farm Stop stop by multiple times every autumn to pick fresh pawpaws. According to Michael McLoughlin, the manager of the Argus Farm Stop location on Liberty Street, pawpaws have an incredibly short shelf life and are hard to ship — they turn black after just three to four days of being off the tree.
Still, McLoughlin said Argus has sold about 500 pounds of pawpaws in 2022, 130 pounds of which were from Boone’s orchard. Argus gets the majority of their pawpaws from individual foragers, McLoughlin said, but Boone is the only one around with thousands of pawpaws in his backyard.
“We have some (pawpaw) sellers who have one or two trees and then people forage them, so they know where to find wild pawpaw trees,” McLoughlin. “Marc is the only one I know who has what you might call a legit orchard.”
According to co-owner Kathy Sample, Argus Farm Stop has been selling Boone’s pawpaws at their store for the past six years. After hearing about Boone’s pawpaw patch from a friend, she said she drove out to his house herself to pick a small harvest of pawpaws for the shop. Beyond growing some of the most delicious pawpaws in the area, Sample said Boone’s obvious care for his orchard and his community is heart-warming.
“I drove out to Ellsworth Road and found Marc,” Sample said. “He’s just absolutely a treasure.”
Though Zingerman’s recently switched over to getting pawpaw pulp from Nash Nurseries in Owosso, Mich., for their gelato, they also picked the fruit at Boone’s orchard for years, according to Zingerman’s Creamery co-owner Arend Elston. It was Boone who inspired the flavor, which the creamery now carries annually from September through Thanksgiving.
“Marc’s kind of like the grandfather of the pawpaw,” Elston said. “They’ve grown naturally in Michigan for forever, but Marc has really brought them to fruition here.”
As for the future of Boone’s pawpaw patch, that’s up in the air, he said. Boone and his wife have no children or grandchildren to inherit his title as the “Pawpaw Prince of Southeast Michigan,” but owning one of the only pawpaw orchards in the state is a legacy that will last as long as his trees are standing.
Wandering through the rows of pawpaws, gently brushing over their trunks with white paint to protect the bark from the harsh sunlight, Boone said he can see his own journey reflected in the orchard. He remembers metaphorical seeds that never grew and fruit that turned to rot. He reminiscences on plans that came to fruition and others that fell away like autumn leaves.
“When I walk through it, I can think of all of the different plans that I’ve had and changed and abandoned over the years,” Boone said. “I see things I could have done different.”
But he is also reminded of his personal triumphs when the pawpaws appear along the lofty branches of his trees every fall. Surrounded by pawpaws as far as the eye can see, Boone knows he and his curious little fruits have certainly left their mark on Ann Arbor.
“I remember planting those fruit trees years ago,” Boone said. “Now they dominate the landscape.”
Daily News Editor Roni Kane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.