You’re familiar with peaches, apples, and pears. But have you heard of pawpaws?
Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is an under-appreciated native tree that can be found growing wild from northern Florida to southern Ontario and as far west as Nebraska. It grows 15 to 20 feet high beneath the canopy of larger trees, often in deep, fertile river bottomland. The long dark green tropical-looking leaves, which turn yellow to yellow-brown in the fall, are the food source for the zebra swallowtail butterfly.
Two-inch dark maroon flowers emerge before the leaves in the spring and emit a weak fetid aroma to attract pollinating flies and beetles, which are undoubtedly attracted to the irresistible carrion-like scent of the blooms.
Because a single pawpaw cannot pollinate its own flowers, you need to grow two unrelated trees. Seed-grown trees will bear fruit, but the best-tasting fruits are produced by named cultivars that have been grafted onto seedling rootstock. Refer to HGIC 1360, Pawpaws, for a list of cultivars suited for our state.
With successful fertilization, large bean-shaped fruit develop and grow to about three to six inches long and one to three inches wide–the largest fruit native to the U.S. In late summer, the ripe fruit softens and becomes fragrant. Oftentimes, individual fruits will change suddenly from green to yellowish-green and then fall from the tree in a single day. There’s nothing easier than harvesting ripe pawpaws from the ground.
Beneath the skin is a creamy pulp ranging from white to yellow and orange that can be scooped out with a spoon. The fruits have two rows of large, shiny, dark, beanlike seeds, but these can easily be removed or spit out. The flavor is rich and tropical, similar to banana-strawberry custard.
Over my lifetime, I’ve eaten several pawpaws and encouraged many friends and acquaintances to try them. In short, you either like the flavor and texture, or you don’t. Recently, I discovered pawpaw’s laxative qualities, especially when I eat more than three in one sitting. It led me to give it another name: poopoo.
Pawpaws are difficult to transplant, so select container-grown cultivars to improve your chances of successfully establishing them in your landscape. Choose a moist, well-drained location in full sun or partial shade. Water the newly planted trees regularly during their establishment period.
Pawpaws make an attractive deciduous screen and, similar to figs, will sucker and, over time, produce a large colony of itself.
If you’re looking for something different yet close to home…a tree that offers visual and gustatory delight, then consider adding a pawpaw to your landscape this fall.