Last Updated on September 23, 2021 by Grow with Bovees
Did you know that pawpaws are the largest edible fruit? But they are America’s forgotten fruit!
They are a type of big tropical fruit, with yellow flesh and black seeds, and a lucky low seed-pulp ratio.
They are a native fruit tree in south-eastern North America, stretching up to West Virginia.
They are a subtropical fruit, but actually prefer a temperate climate — which is good news for home growers!
They have a spoonable flesh, with a texture which is famously like a natural custard and have a sweet, custard-like flavor! You might know about it if you study food and nutrition.
They are in the custard apple family (Annonaceae). They are also known as the Appalachian Banana, or common names such as Indian Banana, Indiana Banana, Wild Banana, American custard apple, Hillbilly Mango and Prairie Banana.
The real pawpaw has a superficial similarity to mango, and pawpaw fruit tastes similar to a banana. The edible fruit pulp is very sweet, with a tropical flavor a bit like a banana mango cantaloupe.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition ate pawpaw fruit when they were on their travels, and chilled pawpaw fruit was apparently George Washington’s favorite dessert, and favorite treat!
A pawpaw tree will look great in your garden. The dark green leaves with their primary veins prominent go a rusty yellow in fall, and it flowers perfect if you pollinate correctly.
It is a stinky plant though, and the flowers have a yeasty smell or sometimes a disappointing nonexistent scent. Not a good choice for an indoor fruit tree!
A Quick History of the Pawpaw Tree
Pawpaws were around before the ice age, and their subsequent extinction was around the Quaternary extinction event. After the extinction of megafauna in Asimina triloba variety, it is believed that they were brought back and spread by humans.
Native Americans definitely foraged for wild-collected pawpaw fruits. Folk songs sing of wild harvesting, and there is evidence to suggest that they actually grew them too!
The name ‘pawpaw’ could have been derived from the Spanish Papaya fruit. The earliest documented mention of pawpaws was in a Spanish colonial expedition, where they found Native Americans growing the fruit.
The genus Asimina comes from the Native American Miami-Illinois name, or the French Colonial name Rassimin The epithet triloba in Asimina triloba describes the flowers — tri-loba meaning with three lobes.
Their conservation status is G5, which means that it is common, but is an endangered species in New Jersey. It also has a Subnational Conservation rank of N3 in Ontario, Canada, which means it is near endangered.
Pawpaw vs Papaya
Papaya is a large, round fruit with yellow flesh and green skin. The taste can be sweet or sour depending on how ripe it is when picked. Papayas grow best at temperatures above 75 degrees Fahrenheit. They do well indoors but need lots of sunlight for optimal growth.
Pawpaw is an oval-shaped fruit with white pulp inside and dark purple skin.
Native Conditions for Growth
A. Triloba originally grew along floodplains, and bottom lands rich in nutrients with fertile soil.
It often grows in dense areas of woodlands, and is an understory plant. This means it begins its life growing beneath the dappled shade of deciduous trees. This is a distinctive growth habit. They would not thrive in an old growth forest though, as they do need a bit more light.
Pawpaw plants spread through the undergrowth with underground runners, and they look for gaps in the groups of trees to spread upwards.
When the plant matures, it can grow as a slender tree, stretching above other plants towards the sun, in a pyramidal shape. With enough sun, they can grow up to 30 feet tall, although they are slow to grow and fruit after 7-8 years.
Places Named After the Pawpaw
It is now also used in school names and place names, or in southern states it is another word for Granddad! The name of the village Paw Paw in Illinois is in reference to a nearby grove.
Other places named after this famous sweet fruit include the Paw Paw lake in Michigan (the Paw Paw lake is a tributary to the Paw Paw river), the Paw Paw town in West Virginia, Paw Paw tunnel on the Ohio Canal.
Communities include the Paw Paw community in Miami County, the Paw Paw Township in Wabash County, and the Paw Paw Township in DeKalb County.
How is the Edible Fruit Used?
You can use the flesh of the fruit to make jam, and various desserts. Methods of preservation include the production of jams, jellies, and pressure canning, where you should use matching numerical values for banana.
In other foods and nutrition, it is popular to freeze the pulp and make an unusual flavor of ice cream. It could also be combined with different fruits for a tropical sorbet flavor.
You might want to try a very small bite of a pawpaw, before you begin to grow the trees in your backyard. The raw flesh can irritate the stomach, and cause discomfort. Some people even have mild to serious allergic reactions. It can also cause skin irritation.
These effects of pawpaw fruit are due to the chemical compound annonacin, that is found in the fresh fruit. But don’t be too worried, as it is categorized as low toxicity, so most people don’t have a problem, and any side effects tend to be mild.
The seeds and pawpaw leaves are also mildly toxic, but in fact, they are used with the bark of pawpaw trees in some homeopathic remedies!
You may be wondering by this point, why this fruit is not often found in grocery stores.
This is largely because they don’t ripen very well off the plant, and as soon as they are ripe they must be eaten quickly. But you can also turn them into jams or make a frozen fruit store.
Can I Grow Pawpaw Fruit in My Backyard?
To mimic the native conditions of A. triloba, you should ensure that young plants are grown in at least partial shade, and grow towards sunlight as they mature. If your backyard is shady, then your pawpaw will be more like a shrub and will bear fewer fruit, but it will still spice up your garden!
If you plan on growing a pawpaw patch, then this will attract wildlife to your garden. Beware though, because they can attract a variety of mammals which will eat your fruit, such as raccoons and squirrels. They also attract black bears, but this is rare, so don’t worry!
Finally, the common pawpaw is adapted to USDA hardiness zones 5-9. It might be worth checking your local area to find out which zone you’re in.
It is best to plant Asimina triloba fruit trees in spring or fall, if you are planting an infant tree. If you are planting a whole fruit to grow from pawpaw seeds, then do this after harvest. But if this is your first time, it is best to start with a root cutting, or transplant a young tree about 2 years old. You can plant a few, and they will grow suckers to make more plants.
First choose your area. It should be relatively shady, but when the plant is mature it should have access to sun. You can plant a quick growing tree nearby for shade when it is young, and a nitrogen-fixing variety to give your pawpaw fertility.
For more fruit, the mature tree should have a minimum of 6 hours of full sun per day. Pawpaw trees like humidity, due to the native pawpaw trees growing near floodplains, so if you live nearby a body of water that is ideal. Choose an area which is sheltered from strong winds, as they can twist the branches of your tree.
Next, ensure you have the right kind of soil, and keep the soil moist. Pawpaws prefer a soil which is neutral or slightly acidic, so around pH 5.5-7.
It should be deep and well-draining. You can have your soil tested if you are not sure, and you can add organic matter to increase the quality.
At this point you can purchase an infant plant or a cutting. Make sure to purchase from a nursery, don’t find a wild paw paw. They don’t transport easily, so they might struggle to survive in a new location.
They also don’t bear fruit as well as plants grown from the cultivation of pawpaws. Cultivated varieties are bred to be vigorous plants that resist disease, and bear fruit of a better quality. Grafted trees would be a good choice if you can find them.
If you are transplanting from your own plant, do so when it is small and dormant. Be aware that if you are transplanting from your own plant, this is difficult because they have a deep taproot system. Make sure that you are transplanting a young tree. You can also plant it in spring, when the buds of the pawpaw flowers begin to break.
You will need at least two varieties of pawpaw trees when planting, as they require cross pollination. See the below section on cross pollination to find out why.
If you have less humid summers, then it is best to choose a variety that bears fruit earlier.
When planting, your pawpaw plants can be planted up to 5 feet apart. Keep them close to imitate the dense groves and thickets, that they would form in the wild. It is thought that a grove of pawpaw trees graft a deep root and share nutrients!
Dig a hole that is twice the width of the roots. Place your transplant in the ground, and pack soil around it. Bear in mind it will need a foot downwards, of loosely packed soil to grow well. Keep a ridge of soil around your plant.
How Much Do I Water and Fertilize?
This depends on how much rain you get. It is important to keep the soil moist, especially after first transplanting. You may need to water your plant extra, if you don’t get much rain, as the pawpaw needs moist soil that drains well.
You can use an all-purpose granular fertilizer, that releases slowly, for a common pawpaw. Spread this in a circle around the base a few inches away. You can also add diluted fertilizer to the seeds.
Make sure that if you have mature trees or shrubs, to fertilize them in springtime.
Prune your pawpaw tree when it is dormant. This will be towards the end of winter, or in early spring.
It is not necessary, but some growers believe it encourages fruit production, and is good for the leaves of pawpaw trees.
I would recommend pulling the suckers by hand to encourage growth. Also, as the pawpaw fruits drop and decompose, they will grow more pawpaw seedlings. You can leave these or pull them up, depending on whether you want to grow pawpaw trees en masse.
If you want a characteristic pawpaw patch, it is best not to prune much, if at all. Remove the weeds though, as they will steal nutrients from your tree.
For successful pollination, which will make your tree bear fruit, you must plant different varieties with different genetics for cross-pollination. A. Triloba is protogynous, which means that it can’t self-pollinate.
The tree is adapted to ensure this doesn’t happen, because the female organ ripens before the pollen. Therefore, as a minimum, you must plant two genetic varieties for cross- pollination. To avoid irregular fruit production, plant more than two varieties.
You may think that you need honeybees as natural pollinators for your pawpaw orchards, but this is not the case! The flowers have a rotting smell, which attracts the less appealing fruit flies, carrion and beetles, for cross pollination of the flowers.
Some growers even recommend hanging roadkill or chicken necks, or spreading fish emulsion as pollinator attractants by your trees, to encourage more flies to come!
If, like me, you don’t want rotting flesh in your garden while sunbathing, you could keep your food/compost bin next to the tree when flowering.
As an alternative to natural pollinators, you can use a paintbrush to make pollination between trees. This is more difficult though, and probably only real pawpaw experts would bother!
It can take up to 7-8 years before your grove of pawpaw trees bear the conspicuous fruits, so patience is needed.
Plants flower in spring, and the harvest season is in fall, mostly around September.
It is important to not pick too soon, as we mentioned, since fruit ripening is less successful off the tree. The green fruit will go yellow and then brown. If you are unsure when it is a ripe fruit, you can do the classic shake of the tree to get the ripe heavy fruits to fall.
After the harvesting of pawpaws, you will need to eat the fruit soon, within about 2 days. You can also freeze it or make it into pudding.
Can I Propagate my Pawpaw?
A. Triloba tends to spread by root suckers, but instead of relying on root suckers you can manually reproduce your plants from a parent tree.
Just be aware that propagating from your own trees will produce a pawpaw patch of the same genetic varieties. Pawpaw groves form because they have this clonal growth habit. You can always find a friend and cross-propagate!
It is possible to shallow plant an entire fruit to grow another tree, but it might be a few months before you see a sprout. Don’t bother planting an individual seed.
You can also take a stem cutting from your tree and graft onto a root stock.
Pests and Diseases
These are not a major concern for your pawpaw patch. Annona Triloba is one of the most pest and disease resistant fruit trees, which makes pawpaws for fruit production an ideal choice.
Variety trials in commercial cultivation, have produced cultivated varieties which are bred to have protection from predation. They have disagreeable-smelling leaves, smelling like a green bell pepper, which contain an insecticide called annonaceous acetogenins. This acts as protection from predation.
Some less common pests and diseases include:
- Fungal or bacteria leaf spot. This comes if the leaves of the pawpaw are too wet. You can get rid of this with a copper-based fungicide.
- The pawpaw peduncle borer is the major pest. It burrows into the trees and eats the flowers. However, it would be very rare for them to damage the entire tree.
- In the eastern states, the larvae of the zebra swallowtail butterfly feeds on the leaves, but this doesn’t cause much damage. They ingest the natural presence of acetogenins in the leaves, and trace amounts of acetogenins remain inside them, so their predators don’t eat them!
- Pawpaw trees can suffer from blue stain disease, but it is thought that this only occurs when the tree is under stress.
- Other pests include spider mites, hornworms, caterpillars, Japanese beetles etc.
- Pawpaws are actually useful if you have a problem with deer, as they don’t eat pawpaw trees or fruit.
In fact, as the leaves and bark of pawpaws contain annonaceous acetogenins, you can use them to make your own organic natural insecticide!
Hopefully this guide has encouraged you to grow your own pawpaw orchard!