Recently, my wife showed me a video of a Michigan gardener attempting to describe growing pawpaws. As I have some experience in this myself, I was dumbfounded by his lack of knowledge on the subject of this wonderful fruit. Only five minutes into the video and I said to turn it off, I need to write a blog on this.
But what are pawpaws? Many people have actually heard of pawpaws, without knowing what they are. If you grew up watching the movie The Jungle Book, you will remember when Baloo the bear sings about the “big pawpaw” during the Bear Necessities song. That was likely a reference to a papaya or similar tropical fruit, not the true pawpaw we have here in the United States.
Pawpaws are one of our best tasting, yet hardest to find fruits, in my opinion. They are hard to find, because the fruit does not ship nor stay fresh on store shelves. Also, because the fruit does not ripen well off the tree, they would be difficult to pre-pick. We have a short window of picking time here in Kansas, from September 15th to the 30th.
All About the Pawpaw
The pawpaw, Asimina triloba, is native to the eastern half of the United States. Eastward from the tallgrass prairies to the Atlantic Ocean and southward from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico is where you will find them. They grow best in USDA zones 5 to 9, in areas with high rainfall.
Pawpaws fall into the Custard-Apple Family, which contains some 160 species and includes the soursop and others. The large, tropical looking leaves give the small tree a unique appearance. If planted alone, the pawpaw has a pyramidal shape, similar to a Christmas tree. However, in nature, you will only find them in groves.
The bark of the pawpaw is grayish and mostly smooth. Trees can grow from 10 to 40 feet tall, but no more than 15 to 20 feet wide at max. The red flowers are facing downward along the branches in spring, and can be quite showy. Flowers are pollinated by flies and other insects, as they smell like rancid meat. The fruit is green until ripening, where it turns yellow. It tastes like a cross between a banana, mango, and papaya.
Growing Pawpaws in Your Backyard
Not everyone can grow pawpaws in their backyard, but if you have a part-shade, moist area with wind protection, you should be able to. In nature, pawpaws are an understory tree, meaning that they prefer to grow with protection from larger trees. I have found them growing both at the bottom and half way up the bluffs along the Missouri River, as well as in floodplains near oak-hickory forests in eastern Kansas. They are always overshadowed by larger trees such as hickory, oak, cottonwood, sycamore, hackberry, elm, red mulberry, and linden.
How to get Started Planting Pawpaws
Pawpaws are open-pollinated fruit, meaning that to get the best fruit production, you need either 2 different cultivars or trees from 2 separate groves. Pawpaw trees can be grown from seeds, rooted cuttings, or nursery stock. I have done all 3 types in my personal grove, and have had the most success with seeds.
Growing pawpaws from seed is easy if you have the location ready and seed available. I often get fruit from family members who have groves of their own, and I save the seed. To plant it, I direct sow where I want it to grow, right after eating the fruit. In 2020 I sowed 9 seeds in a grove, and got 5 seedlings to come up and grow. They do need a stratification period, or cold storage period (such as winter) to grow.
I have also dug up seedlings from other groves and planted them directly into my grove, with varied success. If you can find growers with cultivars, add these to your grove for better pollination and fruit production. Here at Grimm’s Gardens, we usually have 1 to 3 cultivars available.
Care of Pawpaw Trees
I do very little to care for my pawpaw trees. If we are in a drought, I may watered newly planted trees, but mostly I leave them alone. Once you have the right spot for your trees, they need little to no care at all. Remember, pawpaws like part shade, water, and protection. My grove is in the lowest part of my sloped property, where water runs in heavy rainfall, and is surrounded by oaks, hickories, maples, and hackberries. In 2021, I have not watered any of my pawpaw trees, and they thrive.
Pests and Diseases
For insect pests of the trees themselves, you will find only the Zebra swallowtail butterfly and the pawpaw sphinx moth. I find it a pleasure to allow both of these caterpillars on the leaves of my pawpaws. There is also a borer moth that will sometimes affect the flower, but is not a common problem.
Animals such as raccoons, opossums, and squirrels may go for the ripe fruit, but will not pick unripe fruit. There are no disease issues.
Caution About the Fruit of Pawpaws
If you have not eaten pawpaws before, do a small taste before attempting to grow them yourself. Some people have allergic reactions to the fruit that may include contact dermatitis, hives, and indigestion. The seeds are poisonous to humans.
Growing pawpaws can be a fun and rewarding process for the home gardener who wants some tropical tasting and looking fruit. Pawpaws provide a source of food for humans, as well as for the majestic zebra swallowtail butterfly.