Who would guess that America’s ugliest native fruit would taste so good? Pawpaws are a small deciduous tree that grows in the understory layer of the forest. They thrive in the eastern United States from Michigan to the north of Florida and west into Nebraska.
The pawpaw (Asimina triloba) produces a greenish-yellow fruit that tastes downright tropical. Often compared to a mix of bananas and mangos it has a custard-like consistency. In fact, in Kentucky, you often hear them referred to as poor man’s banana. They're also called the custard apple fruit.
The inside of the fruit is creamy white or pale yellow. They're delicious raw, used in baking, and are popular for making into ice cream.
In recent years, there has been increased interest in growing pawpaws commercially and in back yards. Kentucky State University has the longest-running full-time research program dedicated to the propagation and management of native pawpaw trees.
I was lucky enough to go to a class on raising pawpaws on the campus where we visited KSU’s pawpaw orchard. Part of the class was a taste testing, which kickstarted my desire for growing pawpaws.
The pawpaw has thin skin and soft fruit. This makes it very hard to ship without it rotting. As such, pawpaws are in much demand at local farmer's markets and summer festivals. But the best way to have fresh pawpaws is to grow them yourself.
As well as ‘good eatin,’ the pawpaw has also been involved in some interesting research. Scientists have found the seeds and leaves make a powerful natural insecticide and pesticide.
Pawpaws plants are becoming more commercially available and can be found readily at online nurseries and locally where they are popular. You'll notice that many pawpaws have southern Appalachian names reminiscent of where they were discovered.
Most of the cultivars were developed in the mid-west and Ohio River valley and have been bred for that region.
Davis does well in northern climates and has had successful production in Michigan and Wisconsin. Ripens early and produces large fruits.
This variety was bred from wild stock in Chanute, Kansas. It's said to be self-fertile but will do best planted with another variety. Featuring large yellow-skinned fruit with butter-color flesh, fruits have only a few seeds and ripen early to mid-September in Kentucky and the first week of October in Michigan. This variety is prolific and trials at KSU show yields of 75 fruit per tree. This adaptable variety is gaining popularity on the west coast.
One of the oldest and tastiest pawpaws, Overleese was breed by W.B. Ward in Rushville, Indiana, in 1950. It ripens in early September in Kentucky and 1st week of October in Michigan. This variety has large fruits but it's not as prolific as some others.
This hybrid variety comes from Davis x Overleese. The fruit has yellow skin, thin flesh, and few seeds. It ripens early in September. It features a large fruit size averaging 180 g/fruit and 45 fruit per tree at KSU. This variety has been tested at Clemson University and does well in the south.
Fruit from this tree has few seeds, and is fleshy and delicious. It has yellow flesh, thick skin and is less fragile than other varieties. Ripens later than other varieties – late September in Kentucky. Fruit size is large, often weighing over a pound each. The variety yields 40 fruit per tree at KSU and responds well to pruning.
This variety features extremely juicy fruit with small seeds and a sweet, melt in your mouth flavor. It has medium productivity. This variety is less bushy and more upright.
Wabash is known for its high productivity and outstanding flavor. The flesh is creamy and has a light orange color. A hit in taste tests at KSU trial orchards, I tried this one at a tasting and it's my favorite. Every year, I anxiously await mine to fruit so I can dig in.
Shenandoah has good yields and a sweet, mild custard-like flavor. It's also incredibly fleshy. This tree responds well to pruning and is a fast grower. The fruit grows in clusters. It does particularly well in the southern states.
Luckily for me, the pawpaw is easy to grow organically. The tree itself is naturally small with an average height of 10-20 feet. They often grow wild in thickets along creek beds.
Pawpaws are cold hardy down too -20°F with a long blossoming period. They grow best in zones 5-9.
Young plants are sun-sensitive and they need protection during the first and possibly second year. After that, give plants full sun.
Pawpaws adapt to a wide range of soils. They prefer a pH level from 5.0-7.0 but they do seem to like more acidic soil.
Pawpaws prefer moist well-drained soil. Deep, loamy soil with a lot of aged compost will get your trees off to a great start. Remember, they're forest trees that naturally grow near waterways and have a thick layer of leaves around them.
Pawpaws require cross-pollination, so you'll need to plant more than one. You can plant pawpaws by direct sowing seed outdoors. While this is a slow way to get fruit, it does contribute to a healthy tree. It's essential not to let seeds freeze or dry out.
Seeds need a cold period. Plant seeds outdoors in the fall. They will chill over the winter. Protect the area you plant the seeds in so they don’t get trampled and the ground compressed.
You can also purchase bare-root plants or seedlings. Plant these in the spring.
Pawpaws have a long taproot and roots that aren't very fibrous. The roots seek and bring up nutrients from the subsoil. For this reason, you should provide a deep hole at least 12-inches longer and three times wider than the root ball when planting. Make sure you loosen up the soil before backfilling to give roots a good start.
Plant trees between 10-20 feet apart. Don’t plant them further than 30 feet away from each other or you'll risk pollination issues.
Caring for Pawpaws
The wild pawpaw tree needs at least 32-inches of rain per year. If you live in a drier climate you will want to supplement water. In addition, newly planted pawpaw’s should be kept moist until they develop their taproot.
Weed control is important. Pawpaws don't like competition. Pawpaw appreciate a deep mulch to simulate the cool forest floor. A thick layer of straw or wood chips is ideal.
Pawpaw trees tend to sucker and become bushy. If you choose to let them sucker they make a nice fence line. You can also prune them to be more upright. Pruning encourages fruit production.
The fruit forms on new wood each year. Prune away wayward or crossing branches.
Pollination is one of the few challenging aspects of growing pawpaws. The flowers are not attractive to many pollinating insects. Most likely the insects that evolved with the pawpaw have become extinct (as many insect species have).
Pollinators include several species of flies and beetles. Bees are not attracted to pawpaws. Hand pollination is possible and some authorities suggest spreading fresh manure around your trees to attract flies.
Challenges and Solutions for Growing Pawpaws
The advantage of growing native wild trees is that they have few pests and diseases.
Pawpaw Peduncle Borer
Pawpaws only have one main pest and it's rare. The pawpaw peduncle borer, Talponia plummeriana, is a small moth that in the larvae stage burrows into the flowers. This can cause them to die and consequently not develop fruit.
The beautiful zebra swallowtail butterfly larvae feed on pawpaw foliage. They don't do much damage, however, and it may be worth it to have the butterflies around.
Sometimes, pawpaws will get hard, black patches covered in fungus. You can control these with a fungicide, but since it doesn't harm the fruit, you can just leave it.
Deer will not eat the bark or the leaves but they love the fallen fruits.
Harvesting and Storing Pawpaws
The first two years the seeds grow slowly, spending more energy on root growth. The trees will start to bear fruit when they are six feet tall which takes six or seven years.
Fruit ripens late summer and early fall. Once they're ripe, pull them from the tree and eat them quickly because they only last a few days. You can refrigerate them and make them last about a week. If you really want to stretch things out, pick fruits just before they are ripe and put them in a fridge for a week or two. Then take them out and let them ripen for a few days. Don't sore them in temps below 40°F.
Do you also have black walnuts growing on your property? We made these cookies a few years ago. They're an interesting mix of sweet and slightly bitter. I thought they were yummy, my son not so much!
This recipe (and many more) come from the Kentucky State University’s Pawpaw website.
- 3/4 cup pureed pawpaw pulp
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 tsp. baking powder
- 1/2 cup butter
- 1 egg
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1/2 cup black walnuts
Preheat the oven to 350oF and grease one large cookie sheet. Peel and seed fresh pawpaws and process in a food processor until fine. Sift together the flour and baking powder, and set aside. Cream the butter and sugar. Add the egg. Add the flour mixture and then add the pawpaw pulp.
Chop half the nuts (reserve 16 pieces) and blend them in. Drop by teaspoonfuls onto the prepared cookie sheet and press a piece of black walnut onto the top of each cookie. Bake 12 minutes or until brown across the top. Makes about 16 cookies.
This is the chosen way to eat pawpaws in the Vanorio household. I have tried several ice cream recipes, but I find the simplest is the best.
- 2 cups pawpaw pureed until creamy
- 1 cup of cane sugar
- 2 cups thick whipping cream or if your milking skim the cream off the top
- 2 cups whole milk
Combine the ingredients well and follow the directions for your ice cream maker. Sometimes I like to mix in one or two cups of the following: nuts, coconut, cherries, or a tsp of vanilla flavoring.
The pawpaw leaves and seeds contain a natural bug repellent. Crush the leaves and rub them on your skin to keep bugs away.
Take seeds of the pawpaw and put in a blender to chop coarsely. Then, pour two cups of gin over the seeds and allow them to soak for a week. Put in a spray bottle mixed half strength with water and spray your plants.
The Bottom Line for Growing Pawpaw
The pawpaw will be a fabulous addition to your orchard. Easy to grow and delicious to eat, you will get years of enjoyment from growing them.