Pawpaws: The Tropical Fruit From Our Forests

Spring is almost here and now we can start thinking about trees to plant if we did not get to that in the fall. Thinking about trees for my garden, I came back to one I have been considering for a while now — one that gives delicious fruit, is native, makes me think of tropical lands, and is not liked by deer! Today’s post is going to be about a little-known tree that’s native to our region, and whose fruits were apparently one of George Washington’s favorites: pawpaws!

What are pawpaws?

Pawpaws are trees that belong to the same plant family as chirimoyas and custard-apples (Annonaceae, the soursoup family; Figure 1). From a botanical perspective, pawpaws are really special because they are the only member of their family adapted to growing outside of the tropics and able to survive our temperate climate.

pawpaw and related fruits

Figure 1 – Pawpaws (left), chirimoyas (top right) and custard apples (bottom right) are all in the same plant family, but pawpaws are the only group adapted to growing in temperate climates.

All pawpaws grow in southeastern North America, but the most common and widespread species is the common pawpaw, Asimina triloba, which is very abundant in our region. The common pawpaw is adapted to growing in well-drained and fertile habitats, such as those found in our forests. I promise you that if you ever walked in a forest in the area, you have seen hundreds of pawpaws growing in groves (Figure 2).

Pawpaw grove

Figure 2 – Pawpaws grow in well-drained fertile soils, and are common in our forests where they often grow in groves. Photo: Katja Schulz.

Why are pawpaws such a “thing”?

Besides being great native trees that grow well in our region, pawpaws have the most delicious fruits. They are considered the largest edible fruits indigenous to the continental United States. The fruits look a bit like a green mango from the outside, but are white/yellow and fleshy in the inside (Figure 3).

pawpaw fruit

Figure 3 – Pawpaw fruits are green on the outside and white and fleshy on the inside. Note the very large seeds. Photo: Elizabeth.

Their flavor is such a delicious one that I always relate it to tropical fruits. People more technical than I am in terms of flavor description say that it is a custard flavor, close to that of bananas, pineapples, and mangos. In any case, believe me when I tell you that these fruits are absolutely delightful and can be eaten fresh, in yoghurts, in cakes, as jams, or frozen in ice-cream!

Why didn’t I know about this before?

That was my very question the first time I tried them! It turns out that producing pawpaws for selling is not super simple. In fact, the fruits are fragile and thus can’t be transported long distances, which reduces their marketability. This means that pawpaws are usually produced and consumed locally. If you do not happen to know somebody with some trees on their land, you probably never got to try them.

Also, the pawpaw fruit season is relatively short (end of the summer), which means that one has to be in the right place at the right time to eat them. In season, pawpaws can be purchased at local farmers’ markets or on farms. You can also try to find them in the forests of the area, where you will be able to smell the sweet aroma of the fruits while you hike or bike. However, be sure to check property rules; harvesting plant materials from park lands is typically prohibited.

Why are you talking about this now? It’s not pawpaw season yet!

That is correct. However, it is pawpaw planting season now, and soon will be pawpaw pollination season, both needed to actually get the delicious fruits in the summer. So, how to plant and pollinate them?

Pawpaws can be grown from seed, but the simplest way to get one for your land is from a nursery. Several nurseries in the area sell pawpaw trees, and your best choices are those which grow trees that are adapted to your local conditions.

Pawpaws are not hard to grow and can be actually cultivated in your own back or front yard! Further, some counties and cities provide financial support to plant these native trees (see for example, Chesapeake Bay Trust and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources).

Pawpaw trees start producing fruit a couple years after planting. However, fruit production is a bit different from that of other fruits you may be growing. In fact, fruits will form only if there is cross-pollination (see this other post), since a pawpaw is not able to properly self-pollinate. This means that pawpaws need pollinators to produce fruit.

pawpaw flower

Figure 4 – Pawpaw flowers have evolved to attract and trick flies and beetles by looking dark and smelling like ripe fruits, the insects’ preferred food and egg-laying site. With this trick, the plant cross-pollinates their flowers without offering any reward to the pollinators. Photo: Judy Gallagher

Pawpaws are pollinated by flies and sometimes beetles, which the flowers attract with their maroon flowers and their ‘yeasty’ aromas (Figure 4). These scents are known to ‘trick’ the pollinators into visiting the flowers, mimicking the odor of ripe fruits that these insects prefer to feed on or lay their eggs. Flowers then attract these pollen dispersers, who, while visiting the flowers, will cross-pollinate them without their will.

You can imagine by now that having more than one pawpaw on your land or in the surroundings of your house will increase fruit production. It will then be more likely that the fooled pollinators will have visited another plant and thus carry pollen when they visit your tree.

Alternatively, if you would like to be absolutely sure to get a good pawpaw crop, you can cross-pollinate them by hand. To do that, get a small brush, pick pollen from the anthers of one flower (check the drawing here to find them), and transfer it to the stigma of another. That way you will get to live your best pollinator life! 😊

By Anahí Espíndola, Assistant Professor, Department of Entomology, University of Maryland, College Park. See more posts by Anahí.

6 Comments on “Pawpaws: The Tropical Fruit From Our Forests

  1. Pawpaws are great. And yet another reason to plant them is that they serve as the host plant for the Zebra Swallowtail.

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    • Yes, plant two different trees for good pollination. This can be two different cultivars, any two seedlings of the straight species, or a combination of a seedling and a cultivar.

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  2. I’ve been told that wild pawpaws have less than perfect attributes, whereas there is at least one breeder in MD and presumably others here and/or elsewhere who are producing improved specimens. Presumably worth researching if considering buying.

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