With its bold foliage and banana-flavored fruit, the Pawpaw Tree brings a taste of the tropics to your garden. Sitting in its cooling shade on a hot summer day, you may feel yourself transported to a tropical getaway. Make no mistake about it, though, the Pawpaw is one hundred percent American! Native to the Southeast, it can be found all over woodsy areas as far west as Nebraska and north to New York and the Great Lakes states. George Washington planted Pawpaw at Mount Vernon, and Thomas Jefferson grew it at Monticello. The Lewis and Clark expedition subsisted on pawpaws for three days when supplies ran low, and Native Americans have eaten them for thousands of years. Let us explore, then, this cherished piece of our natural history, the Pawpaw Tree.
Not sold at the corner store
The fruit is arguably the most remarkable aspect of the Pawpaw Tree, though its fragility makes it less well known than it could be. Because pawpaws are easily bruised and don’t ship or store well, you won’t find this fruit at the supermarket. You may find pawpaw at the farmer’s market or at one of the local festivals held in its honor; otherwise, you’ll have to grow your own.
Like banana custard
About the size of a mango and growing to as much as six inches long, this delectable treat is our biggest native fruit. It contains several large, smooth seeds inside, and botanists classify it as a berry. It doesn’t taste like any berry you’ve ever had, however. A ripe pawpaw tastes like banana with a hint of cantaloupe, and it has a smooth, custardy texture.
There are lots of ways to enjoy pawpaw. You can cut it in half and scoop out the pulp with a spoon, eating it plain or adding it to smoothies, oatmeal, or ice cream. I love it as a topping to vanilla ice cream along with chopped walnuts. You can also add it to baked goods in place of bananas to make scrumptious pawpaw bread, pancakes, and muffins.
This is guilt-free snacking at its finest. All-natural pawpaws are rich in manganese, iron, and vitamin C and are a good source of magnesium, copper, essential amino acids, and fiber. They also offer some calcium, phosphorus, zinc, riboflavin, and niacin. There has even been some research indicating that extracts from the Pawpaw Tree may have a role in fighting cancer.
Sharing the bounty (or not)
Wildlife such as raccoons and opossums enjoy pawpaws, too, and may compete with you for the harvest. They may beat you to the punch, making off with the fruits as soon as they’re ripe. Fortunately, pawpaws do not have to ripen completely on the Tree. You can pick them before they turn soft (ripe and unripe fruits are both green—they simply turn somewhat soft to indicate they’re ready to eat), and put them in a brown paper bag to finish ripening, as you would with bananas. Eat them within a few days of ripening. Pawpaws don’t have a long shelf life.
Unique Pawpaw flowers
The curious flowers from which pawpaw fruits develop are rarely seen by the casual observer. They appear on bare branches in mid-spring, but when the leaves finally emerge (Pawpaw is among the last Trees to leaf out), they become obscured. The russet-red blooms are about two inches wide and hang like bells. They have three larger petals on the outside and three smaller ones within. The petals are thick, as if they were built to be frost proof, although the blooms come when the chance of frost is very slim.
Pawpaw’s primitive pollination plan
In fact, Pawpaw flowers are not built to be frost proof, but beetle-proof. Pawpaws are ancient Trees that evolved to attract beetles and carrion flies, not modern pollinators like bees and butterflies. They lure these primitive insects in with a scent that is supposed to mimic rotting meat. But don’t worry! The scent is neither strong nor is it even particularly offensive. It is only a light musky odor that is barely detectable. It is actually so weak that it isn’t very effective at attracting the beetles and flies it’s supposed to attract. Commercial Pawpaw growers have been known to hang chicken necks in their Trees as additional bait!
It isn’t clear if a Pawpaw Tree can pollinate itself, so planting two or more Trees is recommended if you want to harvest an abundance of fruit. If you have two different Trees and fruit set is still poor, inadequate pollination is often to blame. The insects that are meant to pollinate Pawpaws don’t do a thorough job like bees do. You can easily hand pollinate the blossoms by dabbing them with a paintbrush to improve your yield.
Lush Pawpaw foliage
Pawpaw leaves expand in the lengthening days of spring, eventually reaching as much as twelve inches long and half as wide. They droop lazily on slightly zigzagged stems. The striking, lush foliage of the Pawpaw Tree brings to mind the many tropical Trees to which it is related and provides a pleasing contrast to plants with finer foliage in your landscape. The leaves turn a glowing pineapple-gold color before dropping cleanly in autumn. Pawpaw foliage contains natural chemical pest repellents. Deer rarely browse it, and few insects bother it.
The zebra swallowtail’s favorite meal
One insect is immune to Pawpaw’s toxins and does feed on its leaves, but that insect is a joy to behold: the zebra swallowtail butterfly. This is a rather shy butterfly of the southeastern states, and one well worth luring into your garden with a Pawpaw Tree. Pawpaw is the only plant that it will lay its eggs on. The adult butterfly is white with black stripes (hence the name), with long tails, dabs of shimmering blue, and streaks of brilliant red. Sometimes you will notice the palest icy blue wash of color to its wings. The female typically lays eggs singly on the top sides of the leaves. The caterpillars are marked by fine green and gold stripes and are protected from predators by the toxins in the leaves they eat.
Keep it cool and moist
In the wild, Pawpaw is often found growing in the understory, where its huge leaves can capture the scraps of light that make it to the forest floor. In the garden, it is likewise tolerant of shade, although growth will be denser and fruiting more profuse in sunnier sites. In any case, steady moisture is a must, as Pawpaw does not like to dry out. Choose a cool, sheltered site, mulch well, and irrigate regularly to keep Pawpaw looking its best in the landscape.
Pawpaw patch or proud specimen
In time, your Tree will sucker, eventually becoming a Pawpaw patch if you allow it to do so. You can choose to let it follow its natural tendencies and create a fast-growing seasonal screen or border, showcasing Pawpaw’s dramatic foliage. Or, you can maintain it as a single-trunked specimen by removing suckers as they appear. Pulling the young suckers by hand is more effective than mowing them. A single-trunked Tree will assume a handsome, confident, pyramidal shape and make a bold statement in the landscape. Either way, you’ll have a fine representative of one of our country’s most charismatic Trees!