North American Native Trees: The Pawpaw Tree

Posted by Margaret Hoegg on

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)

The Pawpaw Renaissance

There has been a lot of interest lately in the Pawpaw tree. This comes as no surprise to us - it is such a fascinating fruit tree species! People are often intrigued to learn that it is native to North America because it produces such a large, seemingly exotic fruit.

Although threatened by deforestation, the wonderful Pawpaw is making a big comeback.

Pawpaw is found almost exclusively in the wild and is difficult for the average person to find - which gives this tree almost mythical status among growers and foodies. The best way to get a hold of Pawpaw fruit is to grow it yourself - and fortunately it is quite easy to cultivate!

 

Not only can you grow Pawpaw trees in zones 5-8, your tree may bear fruit in as soon as four years. Our seeds are harvested from Pawpaw orchards and will yield considerably larger and more flavourful fruit than their wild counterparts.

 

(Thanks for the work you do Decolonial Atlas!)

A brief history of the Pawpaw tree

Fossils closely resembling Asimina triobla date back to 23 - 5.3 million years ago, and the earliest record of the Pawpaw tree in North America dates back to the 1500s.

Pawpaw was cultivated as an important food source by First Nations, and remained popular for a time after colonization. The fruit tree showed up quite often in American folklore and written accounts by early settlers and explorers in North America - accounts describe this delicious and substantial fruit as welcome nourishment in times of crop failure or on long expeditions.

Pawpaw persisted mainly because of mammals such as raccoons, squirrels, opossums, foxes, bears, and white-tailed deer and the Pawpaw’s ability to easily reproduce in the wild through root suckers. However, by the 20th century it fell into obscurity.

If you’re interested in the history of the Pawpaw, you might enjoy this article:  The Pawpaw: A Forgotten North American Fruit tree

 

 

Threats to native Pawpaw tree species

In recent decades, the Pawpaw has been threatened by dramatic habitat loss and deforestation. As an understory tree species, it is a delicate seedling that is highly sensitive to sunlight - so it struggles to survive after clear cutting.

A renewed interest among small-scale growers in the Southern U.S. and the Midwest has brought some attention to this incredible fruit tree and its popularity is growing and spreading up into Canada.

For the Pawpaw to thrive in our Northern climate, it is important to be careful not to cross-breed cold-hardy varieties with ones that have adapted to Southern climates. This is one reason why it is so important to buy seeds from sources you trust, and companies dedicated to preserving heirloom, non-GMO seeds.

 

Pawpaw fruit tastes deliciously tropical

The Pawpaw grows to around 20 feet in height and bears scrumptious, 5 inch, seemingly exotic fruit. The only thing that comes close is the South American cherimoya, sometimes found at specialty produce markets.

Though each variety is slightly different, the fruit tastes something like a mango crossed with a banana and with a soft, creamy flesh - lighter than an avocado and much sweeter.

You can eat it fresh - just scoop the flesh out with a spoon. Its creamy consistency makes great pie filling or fruit custard. You can even pickle ripe fruit when it is still slightly firm.

You shouldn’t eat the seeds or the skin as they can cause intestinal issues and stomach upset. Unripe flesh can have the same effect. When Pawpaw is ripe and ready to eat, its skin darkens and looks almost bruised.

 

The Pawpaw attracts butterflies and deters pests

The zebra swallowtail is a beautiful black and white zebra-striped butterfly whose caterpillars eat only Asimina leaves - or Pawpaw tree leaves.

There are compounds naturally found in the Pawpaw leaves that repel most insects and birds - so the caterpillars eat the leaves to avoid predation. Isn’t nature clever?

This also means that the Pawpaw is a great choice for organic growers because it is naturally pest-resistant!

 

Planting Pawpaw seeds in Fall

If you plant this fall, you likely won't see a shoot or any leaves for the Pawpaw until mid-late August. The plant will send down a long long taproot first. Once that is established it will work on growing above the ground.

Planting in the Fall doesn't necessarily mean September 21st. If average daytime temperatures are above 10, wait until it is consistently colder. Some temperature fluctuations into a warmer zone is fine, but if it's warm enough that the seeds think it is Spring, they may Sprout and then the Winter cold will kill them.

Pawpaws are an understory tree and the young trees need shade to survive and thrive. Full sun will kill baby pawpaw trees! Older trees do fine in the sun, so if you don't have a shady spot, you can build your saplings a simple shelter for their first couple years. We've build very minimal teepee-type structures out of evergreen bows, which has worked beautifully.


Interested in learning more about the Pawpaw? Have you tried growing it from seed? Are you caring for first or second year seedlings? Let us know!

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2 comments

  • Hi Rick,

    It wouldn’t need any Winter protection. Pawpaw is actually a pretty hardy tree considering its tropical appearance! The big thing would be to ensure that the young trees are not exposed to direct sunlight; as they are an understory tree.

    Thanks!

    Hilary Mueller
    Incredible Seeds

    Incredible Seeds on
  • Hi. I’m wondering what kind of winter protection you give the pawpaws. I live on central Vancouver Island and I’d like to grow a couple of these. thanks

    Rick on

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