The pawpaw is a small, deciduous tree that yields the largest fruit native to North America. It’s part of the Annonaceae family, which is the largest family of the magnolia order and features mainly tropical plants. However, Asimina triloba is native to the eastern United States; it’s found in 26 states, with the exception of Florida and most northeastern states.
Pawpaw trees can grow to a height of about 25 feet and feature maroon-colored blossoms with 6 petals in spring. When grown in shady and protected areas of established forests, they only get to be 2 to 12 feet tall. The leaves are dark green, shiny, and oval-shaped with pointy ends. They can grow up to 12 inches in length. In the fall, the foliage turns varying shades of yellow.
These trees are famous for their fruit, which ripens in fall. The paw paw fruit is frequently described as custard-like with a flavor that is a cross between a banana and a mango (though some think it tastes plainer, more like a raw potato). Take note that while the fruit is edible, you should never eat the skin or seeds of this fruit. Pawpaw contains annonacin, which is toxic to nerve cells.
|Common Name||Pawpaw, paw paw|
|Botanical Name||Asimina triloba|
|Mature Size||15-25 ft. tall, 15 ft. wide|
|Sun Exposure||Full, partial|
|Soil Type||Moist but well-drained|
|Soil pH||Acidic, neutral|
|Hardiness Zones||5-8, USA|
|Native Area||North America|
|Toxicity||Toxic to humans|
With basic knowledge about the growing requirements, the paw paw tree can successfully be grown as a tropical-looking addition to your garden or for its delicious fruit. Paw paw trees require adequate irrigation but must be in well-draining soil conditions to prevent root rot and fungus. Be sure to protect young trees from too much sun exposure and wind.
These trees have a suckering habit and will grow into a stand of paw paw trees. However, If you’re hoping to yield fruit from a paw paw tree, be sure to plant several genetically different trees in close proximity.
In its natural habitat, the pawpaw tree is found in the understory of forests. As a result, these trees flourish in partial shade. Young trees especially benefit from shady conditions, as bright, direct sunlight can scorch the leaves. Upon maturing, pawpaw trees can be grown in full sun conditions, which is often the case when planted in orchards. These trees will have a more pyramid-like shape, while pawpaws in shade have spreading branches and fewer lower limbs.
Soil conditions for the pawpaw must be rich and well-draining. For nutrient-poor soil, add compost to boost soil quality. The pawpaw can grow in heavy, clay soil but only if there is sufficient drainage. Slightly acidic to neutral soil pH levels are best for this tree.
Young pawpaw trees will require regular watering. However, it’s important to ensure that the soil is draining efficiently and you don’t allow this tree to become waterlogged. Mature, established pawpaw trees near a water source or that receive regular rainfall generally require very little supplemental water. Pawpaw trees planted in an orchard or in a full sun location in your yard may benefit from additional irrigation to prevent dry soil conditions.
Temperature and Humidity
A cold-hardy fruit tree, the paw paw is hardy to USDA zone 5 and can withstand temperatures of -20 degrees Fahrenheit. At the same time, the warm, humid summers of its native habitat provide this tree with the right conditions for growth and fruit production.
You’ll be most successful in growing the paw paw tree if your climate provides the seasonal swing that these trees are accustomed to since the dormancy of winter prepares the tree for a productive growing season.
Nutrient-rich soil is important for healthy growth and fruit production, so it’s generally recommended to fertilize paw paw trees at least twice a year, once in spring and again in early summer. You can use a well-balanced fertilizer, like a 10-10-10 formula, applied with granules or in a liquid formula. However, your best option may be to add organic matter to the soil using compost, fish emulsion, manure, or a combination of all three.
Propagating Pawpaw Trees
Pawpaw trees can be propagated by grafting and cuttings. Many nurseries graft scions taken from dormant trees that are at least a few years old. The scions are grafted onto pawpaw rootstock. This method yields good success but is a more advanced method of propagation.
Propagation by cuttings is also possible for paw paw trees but has a high failure rate. It's not considered the most surefire way to propagate these trees.
Generally, propagation by seed is the most successful way to start pawpaw trees.
How to Grow Paw Paw From Seed
Growing paw paw from seed is typically the easiest way to start these trees. A simple route is to plant an entire paw paw fruit in the ground in fall. It will often send up shoots during the next spring season.
But if you want to enjoy the tasty fruit rather than plant it in the ground, you can harvest the seeds from the paw paw fruit and sow them in the ground. Follow these steps to grow paw paw trees from seed:
- Scoop out the seeds from a ripe paw paw fruit.
- Next, scarify the seeds. This involves scratching the shell of the seed but not the seed itself. Use sandpaper or a file.
- In fall, you can direct sow the seeds outside where they’ll naturally stratify over the winter and sprout the following summer. Alternatively, you can stratify the seeds indoors by placing them in a cold location for 90 to 120 days. If you choose indoor stratification, Perdue University recommends placing the seeds inside a plastic bag with moistened sphagnum moss to prevent the growth of mold.
- Plant seeds once the soil temperature is between 75 and 85 degrees.
Paw paw trees are no stranger to winter weather and the cold season provides a period of dormancy necessary for fruit production in the following year. Since these trees are hardy to -20 degrees Fahrenheit, there is usually no additional care required for successful overwintering mature paw paw trees. There’s no need to water during the tree’s dormancy.
However, a young paw paw tree in a pot should only be planted in spring. To overwinter a young tree successfully, place it in a sheltered location where temperatures will remain above freezing.
Common Pests & Plant Diseases
Relatively hardy and pest-free, the occasional fungal diseases like powdery mildew or black spot may affect paw paw trees that experience high humidity or very damp conditions. In the case of black spot, the fruit is still edible and it’s only an aesthetic issue.
The pawpaw peduncle borer (Talponia plummeriana) occasionally invades trees and causes the blossoms to drop prematurely, affecting fruit yield significantly. In addition, the larvae of Zebra Swallowtail butterflies feed on the leaves of the paw paw tree, but it rarely causes a serious threat to the health of the tree.
Common Problems With Paw Paw Trees
Paw paw trees experience relatively few issues and are hardy enough to grow unattended in the wild. However, when planted in your yard or garden, you may encounter several problems. Moisture management is one of the key problems that growers encounter, since these trees like moist but well-draining conditions. In addition, the paw paw is not a self-pollinating tree and lacks abundant natural pollinators, causing issues with fruit production.
This is a sign of overwatering or poor draining soil. Check the soil to ensure that it’s well-draining. You may need to add compost or peat moss to improve drainage. If overwatering is the problem, withhold water to allow the soil to dry out. Be sure to only water once or twice a week, depending on temperature and humidity conditions.
Lack of fruit production
Even if you have genetically varied trees planted near each other, it can be hard to attract pollinators to paw paw trees. As a result, the flowers may not become pollinated and consequently fail to bear fruit. To solve this problem, one suggestion is to use pollinate paw paw trees by hand. Find the male flowers, which will be wide open and deep maroon color. The stamen will be visible and should be covered with pollen. Place a small plastic bag underneath the bloom and gently tap the back of the blossom to drop pollen into the bag.
Right away, find a female blossom on another paw paw tree. Mature female blossoms will also be maroon, but may still be partly green and will always be only partially open. Gently open the blossom with your fingers enough to reach the paintbrush inside. Then, after dusting the paintbrush with harvested pollen, dab the stigma inside the flower.
Are two pawpaw trees required to produce fruit?
Yes, paw paw trees are generally not self-pollinating and at least two trees are required for fruit production in most cases. However, the trees must be genetically different from each other to pollinate. In other words, you can’t plant one paw paw tree and expect the offshoot trees that may grow from the tree’s suckers to cross-pollinate.
When will pawpaw trees bear fruit?
It depends on whether the tree was grafted or grown from seed. Grafted paw paw trees, like those you may buy from a nursery, will usually bear fruit in 3 to 4 years. For paw paw trees grown from seed, expect to wait 5 to 8 years for fruit production.
Do pawpaw trees stink?
The bark, twigs, leaves and blossoms of paw paw trees have a perceptible odor. In the case of the blossoms, the odor is faint and may not be noticeable unless you intentionally take a whiff. The leaves will emit an odor when crushed or torn. The scent depends on the variety of the tree and is also subjective. Some people describe it as similar to rotting meat, while others say it smells like bell pepper or even yeasty bread.