The pawpaw tree is a great choice if you’d like an easy to grow, attractive, small and NATIVE fruit tree for your yard. Connecticut is not part of the natural range of pawpaw but it’s close! Asimina triloba, or the common pawpaw, is native to the eastern United States from New York west to eastern Nebraska and south to Florida and eastern Texas but it is not found right near the coast. Native Americans are probably responsible for expanding its original range. Pawpaw likes a temperate and humid climate with mild to cold winters. Other common (sometimes regional) names include wild banana, prairie banana, Kentucky banana, poor man’s banana and banango.
Pawpaw tree (photo: oplin.org)
The pawpaw is a small tree, reaching a maximum height of 25-35 feet and having a somewhat conical form. The tree produces root suckers that grow into trees genetically identical to the parent tree and these result in the formation of “ pawpaw patches”. The deciduous leaves are simple, alternate and non-serrated. Size is 10-12” x 4-5”. The leaves have a green pepper like odor when bruised or crushed. Fall color is golden yellow. The 2” flowers have 2 whorls of 3 petals each and are maroon and hang upside down. Flowers are present just before leaf expansion for about 6 weeks in the spring from March to May, depending on climate and cultivar.
photos: KY State Univ. (left) & en.wikipedia.org (right)
The impressive fruits are the largest native edible fruits in North America. They range from 3 to 6 inches in length and can be plump like a mango. Seeds are produced in two rows of 5-7 seeds each. The seeds are dark brown to black, range from ½ to 1 ½” in length, and are shaped like lima beans. Fruits can occur in clusters of up to nine individual fruits because the flowers have multiple ovaries. Fruits are yellowish green to brown and may have dark fungal spots that don’t affect fruit quality. The best thing about the fruit is that it’s DELICIOUS! The yellow flesh of the fruit, which ripens from August into September, has a unique flavor that has been likened to that of the banana, mango or cantaloupe.
So if you want to grow a pawpaw, what are the growing conditions required? Well, it seems to be a bit fussy because when it’s young, it needs partial shade or filtered light and is an understory tree in the wild. However, after its first year or two, especially for good fruit production, full sun is preferred. The pawpaw forms a deep taproot and has brittle, easily damaged roots so it can be hard to transplant. A container grown plant from a nursery is the best bet because it will result in less damage to the roots at transplant time than digging. The soil should be slightly acidic (pH 5.5-7), moist, fertile and well drained. Pawpaw can be grown from seed but the seed must not be allowed to freeze or dry out and needs to be stratified (exposed to cold for 70-100 days) to break dormancy. More information on growing pawpaw from seed is available in this fact sheet from Kentucky State University.
If you’re interested in fruit production, you’ll need two genetically different pawpaw trees because they require cross pollination and are self-incompatible. The best way to accommodate this is to purchase two different cultivars from a nursery. Even if you have the required two types, you may have to help a bit with pollination. Bees do not like pawpaw flowers. The flies and beetles that do pollinate pawpaw are not particularly effective or reliable. Info on how to do this is included in the fact sheet linked above. Pawpaw is available from a limited number of nurseries either as seedlings (variable fruit quality and characteristics) or as grafted trees. Grafted trees of known cultivars will produce fruit with predictable flavor and quality. Some cultivars that you may be able to find are listed in this pawpaw fact sheet.
Pawpaw fruit is not found much in supermarkets and grocery stores, just at local farmer’s markets or farm stores. The fresh fruit will only last a few days unless refrigerated, in which case it can be kept for up to 3 weeks. It’s primarily eaten fresh but has been used to make a variety of products including juice, jam, wine, pancakes and ice cream. It can be substituted for banana in recipes.
The leaves and twigs of the pawpaw contain chemicals that have beneficial properties such as health benefits (antioxidant) and insecticide products. The wood is not commercially valuable but native Americans used the fibrous inner bark for making ropes, fishing nets and mats. The logs have been used for split rail fences.
Historically, it is known that Thomas Jefferson had pawpaws growing at his estate home, Monticello. Lewis and Clark wrote of eating pawpaw during their expeditions. From Michigan to Virginia, towns and lakes have been named for the pawpaw. It was named the official state native fruit of Ohio in 2009 where there is an annual pawpaw festival.
Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly (Photo: kids.britannica.com)
The pawpaw is generally free of pest and disease problems. The pawpaw peduncle borer (Talponia plummeriana) burrows into the flower causing it to die and drop. In years when this insect is at high population levels it can destroy the majority of the crop. The caterpillars of the zebra swallowtail butterfly feed exclusively on young pawpaw leaves but don’t do enough damage to cause a problem and the butterflies are quite beautiful. Deer do not nibble on pawpaw leaves or twigs but will feed on fruit that has fallen to the ground.
So, if you’re in the market for a great new small to medium native fruit tree, be sure to consider the pawpaw.