Complete Guide to Pawpaw Tree – Asimina triloba


Pawpaws are America’s best kept secret fruit. Pawpaws can’t be commercialized due to spoilage. You have to “know someone” or know your own ‘patch’ to be able to enjoy this delicious treat. Want to learn more about pawpaws? How to find them? How to grow them? Where to buy them? Well, then you’ve come to the right place!

I honestly can’t describe how happy I was when I first found my own Pawpaw patch, and was able to taste the unique flavor.

Maybe your neighbor shared a Pawpaw with you, or you heard about this mysterious North American fruit that you can’t purchase at the grocery store. But please, allow me to take away the mystery and pull the curtain back on the largest fruit native to North America via the following topics (jump links):

What is a Pawpaw and Pawpaw Tree

What is a Pawpaw

Pawpaws are a tropical fruit that is native to North America. Typically 3-6″ long and peanut shaped, it is a sweet, yet custard like flavor. If allowed to ripen, they have the consistency of a yellow banana that is just starting to turn brown. Soft and smooth.

Pawpaws are the largest native fruit in North America, reaching up to 1 kg in size [1]. Additionally pawpaws have lots of nutritional value and are sweet, making them popular with many animals. Squirrels, opossums, raccoons, and deer/chipmunks will eat the fruit, further reducing the supply – but expanding the range.

Also known as the ‘poor man’s banana’ [2], these fruit are always in short supply. Once removed from a tree they have a short shelf life. A pawpaw’s shelf life can be prolonged by being refrigerated. I’ve personally kept pawpaws for up to six weeks in the refrigerator, and they still tasted good (even though they were black).

What is a Pawpaw Tree?

A Pawpaw tree is a an understory tree native to North America that grows to about 15-30′ tall (4.5m – 9 m) at full maturity by 20′-30′ (6m-10 m) spread. Scientifically known as Asimina triloba and producing sweet fruit, it prefers wet to medium moisture and is adaptable in that it can grow in full sun to full shade.

This small tree (10′) in the center of the picture is a Pawpaw. This is what they actually look like in the wild, found in deep Appalachia.

Pawpaw Reference Table

Common NamePawpaw Tree, Appalachian Banana
Native RangeEastern United States, USDA Zone 5-9
Scientific NameAsimina triloba
Height / Spacing15-30′ (5 m – 10 m) / 10-20′ (5 – 10 m)
Light ConditionsFull Sun to Full Shade
Soil TypeSandy, Loam, Humus
MoistureWet to medium – not drought tolerant
Harvest TimeLate Summer, Autumn

Where do Pawpaw Trees Grow – Preferred Conditions

Pawpaws are natural understory trees. Meaning that they naturally grow beneath the Appalachian forest canopy in full shade to partial sun. However, if one is inclined, Pawpaw Trees can be grown in an orchard tree in full sun.

But you will naturally find these in the Appalachian Mountains throughout Eastern North America. From Pennsylvania to Georgia to Indiana and Ohio [1].

Look for Pawpaw trees growing near water sources or in full canopy shade. My best trick for spotting them (without fruit) is to look for Shagbark Hickory tree leaf structure – then go inspect it to see if it has smooth margins…..

What do Pawpaw trees look like

Pawpaw trees have slim trunks (10-30′ tall) with fairly smooth bark that is pock-marked. Large clusters of leaves (12″ long) with smooth margins will line branches and terminate at the end. The trunks are quite flexible, and easy to bend as they don’t get that large. Pawpaws often form colonies.

But the leaf of the Pawpaw tree is the biggest tell-tale identifier.

Trunks rarely get larger than six inches diameter (18 cm). So, that can be a helpful tell-tale sign as to if you are dealing with a Pawpaw.

Welcome to the Pawpaw patch. You’re looking at a 15′ tall pawpaw trunk.

Pawpaw bark identification

Bark of the Pawpaw is relatively smooth but with a slight roughness. The roughness is due to the air pockets when the bark is young. When you combine the bark texture with the tree size and shape, you can have a good idea as to whether it is a Pawpaw tree.

Pawpaw Bark.

Pawpaw leaf identification

Pawpaw leaves form in clusters and are extremely, up to 12″ long (30 cm) by 4″ wide (10 cm). They are oblong shaped and alternate along a trunk with smooth margins and veined.

Inspect these leaves closely, as Pawpaw leaves will have smooth edges with no ‘sawtooth’ pattern. This is a distinct difference from Shagbark Hickory leaf which has a sawtooth margin.

A young pawpaw sapling

Leaves are toxic and have a bad odor which keeps herbivories away. The leaves also contain a natural insecticide [3], which helps keep this tree free of insect damage.

Leaves of the Pawpaw tree will be extremely large relative to almost all trees in Eastern North America. The leaf clusters of a Pawpaw have a strong resemblance to Shagbark Hickory trees.

In fact, the leaf is how I can identify a Pawpaw tree from a long distance in the deep forests of Appalachia. You look for their very large leaves clustered on small-diameter trunks from a distance. Then, as you get closer, you can inspect the leaf more closely.

Pawpaw Flower

Pawpaws will flower in Spring. They will have small maroon colored flowers with 3 petals. Typically the bloom is 1-2″ diameter. The flowers have a very unpleasant odor.

Credit: Plant Image Library

Regardless of the large number of flowers, most trees in the wild will bear little fruit. This has been documented by research, which found that less than 1% of flowers developed actual fruit in the wild [4]. The researchers theorized that this low flower-to-fruit ratio for pawpaws was due to pollinators, and sunlight.

The low number of Pawpaw fruit per tree is usually due to several key factors:

  • Flies are the primary pollinators, and can be unreliable [3]
  • Flowers bloom early in Spring, and there are fewer pollinators
  • Trees cannot self pollinate, and there are male/female flowers

How to find Pawpaw trees in the wild

The easiest way to find Pawpaw trees is to first get find an area with good growing conditions for Pawpaw. Then, learn to identify Pawpaw Trees by the general shape, bark, and LEAF of the tree.

I get a stiff neck looking for pawpaws. As you can see here….

Finding the right growing conditions for Pawpaws.

Pawpaws are understory trees, meaning they are under the canopy of bigger trees (hickory, oak). Pawpaws love partial sun to full shade. Pawpaws prefer moist to medium moist soil.

How to Spot a Pawpaw tree from a distance

To find Pawpaws in the wild, hike through the forest and look for large leaves that are clustered on smaller diameter tree trunks. If you see a smaller tree with large leaves, go inspect the leaves and bark more closely.

Sometimes it’s easier to find the seedlings!

Look for other trees that like the same conditions to Find Pawpaws

I mean this wholeheartedly. If you can find Hickories, Black Walnut, White Oak or Red Oak – you can find Pawpaw Trees. Pawpaw will grow in similar conditions as Hickory trees. They also have similar leaf structure and size (but Pawpaw is much larger).

If you train your eyes to spot Hickory leaf structure, you will quickly find Pawpaw trees.

Pawpaw leaf vs Hickory Leaf – Don’t confuse them!

Young Shagbark Hickory trees resemble Pawpaw trees. The bark of a young Shagbark Hickory isn’t as “shaggy” as an older tree. So, even I may get them confused – until I look at the leaves! Use the leaves to make sure of your identification!

The key to differentiating Pawpaw leaves from Hickory Leaves is the edge of the leaf! The edge of the Pawpaw leaf is smooth, while Hickory is ‘saw-tooth’.

When to harvest Pawpaws

In regards to any crop – Mother Nature knows the schedule of any crop. You are just a spectator.

But, when night temperatures start dipping below 60F, you should start thinking about Pawpaws. Because, nature knows the schedule of harvest – and Pawpaws should begin ripening at those temps.

So, start checking your Pawpaw patch for ripeness once Autumn signals it’s arrival.

When is a Pawpaw Ripe?

A Pawpaw is ripe and ready when it is slightly soft to the touch. If you give a gentle squeeze, and the Pawpaw feels like a tennis ball, it isn’t ready. If the Pawpaw feels like a firm foam ball, then it is ripe enough.

This small pawpaw needs a couple of weeks to ripen up! I Picked it way to early.

You want your Pawpaw to get slightly deformed when you squeeze it, similar to a ripe pear or peach. It is the same test, only a different variety of fruit!

How to ripen Pawpaw fruit

Pawpaws will ripen up on their own. Just leave them on a sunny window sill and check them daily. After a few days to a week they should be ripe.

The exposure to sun and room temperatures will soften the fruit up in no time.

How long do Pawpaws last?

Pawpaws will only last for about a week at room temperature. So, once they fall off the tree they must be eaten relatively quickly. Pawpaws can be stored in the refrigerator for several weeks and still taste good. [5]

After 3-4 weeks in the refrigerator, the skin may turn black. But don’t throw it out! It may still be quite sweet. It will just be a bit messy to eat, but I have eaten ‘black’ pawpaws and they tasted great.

How to eat Pawpaws

There are many ways to eat pawpaws. But you generally just need to cut it in half. And either peel the skin, or scoop out the fruit from the skin (depending how ripe the fruit is).

How to harvest & sow Pawpaw seeds

What Pawpaw seeds look like

Pawpaw seeds resemble pieces of the chewing gum Chiclets, only they are black. They are oval/rectangular discs that are about the size of a pinky finger nail.

Cleaning Pawpaw seeds

Rinse your pawpaw seeds in water and remove any bits of the pawpaw fruit. Then, soak your seeds in a mixture of 1 part bleach to 10 parts water for about 5 minutes. This will sterilize and kill any mold or fungus organisms that may be living on the seed.

Storing Pawpaw seeds

If pawpaw seeds dry out they will not be viable. So, store them in a mixture of moist stand in a ziplock bag in the fridge until you are ready to plant them. This process is known as cold stratification, and we have a detailed step by step guide how to do it.

But, even if you plant on planting your Pawpaw seeds immediately for germination the following Spring, you should keep them in a moist towel in the fridge until you are ready to plant! These seeds cannot dry out.

How to sow pawpaw seeds

  1. To sow Pawpaw seeds, begin by soaking the seeds in tap water for 24 hours.
  2. Then, winter sow the seed, or cold stratify the seed for 90 days.
  3. Plant pawpaw seeds 1″ deep (2.5 cm).
  4. Germination could take months after temperatures warm up, so don’t give up and be patient!

Where to Buy Pawpaw Trees / Seeds

One important point you should know about before purchasing Pawpaw trees – you need to have more than one! Pawpaw trees will not self pollinate. So, if you want to grow some fruit you need at least two trees!

Getting Pawpaw seeds

It is possible to buy pawpaw seeds online. People have Etsy shops, and certain companies will sell them.

But, you are better off finding an actual pawpaw and getting seeds from the fruit directly. This is just because storage of the pawpaw seeds is so precarious!

Pawpaws need a long cold stratification period. It is best to sow seeds right after eating a pawpaw, or storing them via cold/moist stratification in the refrigerator until you are ready to winter sow.

Plant the seeds about 1″ deep in large pots. Do so by January, as many references state that Pawpaws need 90-120 days of cold stratification.

Buying pawpaw trees online

I have some direct experience with purchasing Pawpaw trees online though, and am happy to share it with you.

It is true that there are some companies and nurseries that sell pawpaw trees, and you can easily buy those. But I opted for purchasing bare root Pawpaw trees. This was quite economical, and both trees survived.

I bought two 6″ bare root pawpaw trees from Cold Stream Farm in 2017, as well as some other trees. My experience was great, as the quality of all trees I purchased from them were excellent. Bare root trees are very low cost compared to container trees. You need to order during the Autumn or Winter, and they ship them the following Spring once the ground has thawed.

Can you propagate pawpaw trees by grafting?

Grafting pawpaw trees has been quite difficult. University of Kentucky made a significant attempt and only had about 40%-75% survival rate depending on the variety [6]. So, it can be done, but it is not easy. It would probably be safer to purchase a tree.

Read More on Natives……

PIN IT FOR LATER

References:

[1] – Desmond R. Layne. The Pawpaw [Asimina triloba (L.) Dunal]: A New Fruit Crop for Kentucky and the United States. HORTSCIENCE, VOL. 31(5), SEPTEMBER 1996. https://journals.ashs.org/downloadpdf/journals/hortsci/31/5/article-p777.pdf Retrieved 17JAN2021

[2] – Kirk W. Pomper, Desmond R. Layne, and R. Neal Peterson. The Pawpaw Regional Variety Trial. Reprinted from: Perspectives on new crops and new uses. 1999. https://hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/proceedings1999/pdf/v4-353.pdf Retrieved 17JAN2021

[3] – Isman M.B., Seffrin R. (2014) Natural Insecticides from the Annonaceae: A Unique Example for Developing Biopesticides. In: Singh D. (eds) Advances in Plant Biopesticides. Springer, New Delhi. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-81-322-2006-0_2

[4] – Mary F. Willson and Douglas W. Schemske. Pollinator Limitation, Fruit Production, and Floral Display in Pawpaw (Asimina triloba). Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club. Vol. 107, No. 3 (Jul. – Sep., 1980), pp. 401-408.

[5] – Koslanund, R., Archbold, D. D., & Pomper, K. W. (2005). Pawpaw [Asimina triloba (L.) Dunal] Fruit Ripening. I. Ethylene Biosynthesis and Production, Journal of the American Society for Horticultural Science jashs, 130(4), 638-642. Retrieved Jan 17, 2021, from https://journals.ashs.org/jashs/view/journals/jashs/130/4/article-p638.xml

[6] – Merwin, Ian & Byard, Rachel & Pomper, Kirk. (2003). Survival, Growth and Establishment of Grafted Pawpaws in Upstate New York. HortTechnology. 13. 10.21273/HORTTECH.13.3.0421.

[flies] – Losada, J.M., Hormaza, J.I. and Lora, J. (2017), Pollen–pistil interaction in pawpaw (Asimina triloba), the northernmost species of the mainly tropical family Annonaceae. American Journal of Botany, 104: 1891-1903. https://doi.org/10.3732/ajb.1700319

Joe Foster

Hi - I grew up outdoors in nature - hiking, fishing, hunting. In high school I got my first job at a garden center where I learned to garden and landscape. I've been growing plants from seed and designing native plant gardens for over six years. I hope to share some of my knowledge with you! Additionally I am a wood worker / DIY enthusiast. I enjoy designing/building projects (with hand tools when I can!). I hope to give you some tips and useful information!

Recent Posts