The pawpaw tree is a deciduous species that yields the biggest fruit native to North America. This plant is part of the Annonaceae family, and this is the biggest family in the magnolia order and it has mostly tropical plants. However, the pawpaw tree is native to the eastern portion of the United States, and you can find it in 26 states, excluding Florida and most of the northeastern states.
It can get roughly 25 feet tall and it has maroon-colored, six-petaled blossoms during the springtime. When you grow it in protected and shady areas, it will get between 2 and 12 feet tall. The leaves are shiny, dark green, and oval-shaped with pointed ends. The leaves can get up to a foot long, and the foliage will slowly turn brilliant yellow hues during the fall months.
The pawpaw tree is famous for the fruit that ripens during the fall. The fruit is usually described as being custard-like, and it has a flavor that is an interesting cross between a mango and a banana, but some people say it tastes more like a planer. The fruit is edible, but you should avoid the seeds or skin of the fruit as it contains annonacin. This is toxic to nerve cells.
This tropical tree is a nice addition to your garden that won’t take up a huge amount of space or require a large amount of care.
Pawpaw Tree General Overview
|Pawpaw tree or paw paw
|Five to Eight
|15 to 25 feet tall – 15 feet wide
|Moist but well-draining
|Full or partial
|Toxic to humans – Skin and seeds
Pawpaw Tree Care – The Basics
With this basic knowledge, you can get the best growing conditions for your pawpaw tree to turn it into a tropical-looking addition to your garen or for the fruit. Pawpaw trees need adequate irrigation to do well, but they also need to be in well-draining soil to help prevent root rot and fungal growth. You also want to protect your younger pawpaw trees from wind and sun exposure.
The trees come with a suckering habit, and they’ll grow into a stand of trees in a few years. However, if you want to get fruit from these trees, you’ll have to plant several trees that are genetically different close together since they don’t self-pollinate.
It’s essential that you have nutrient-rich soil to ensure your pawpaw tree has healthy growth and fruit production. This is why you want to fertilize the trees at least twice every year, doing so once in the spring and once in the early summer. You can use a balanced fertilizer like a 10-10-10 option, and you can apply liquid or granules for the best results. However, the best option could be to add organic matter right into the soil in the form of compost, manure, fish emulsion, or a combination of each.
In the natural habitat, you can find the pawpaw tree in the forest understory. As a direct result, this tree will do very well when you plant it in an area that gets partial shade. Young trees will benefit from shady conditions because direct, bright sunlight can result in leaf scorching. Once the tree matures, you can grow them in full sun conditions, and this is usually what happens when you plant them in orchards. The trees come with a pyramid-shape when you grow them in full sun, and they have spreading branches with fewer lower limbs in the shade.
These trees aren’t a stranger to the winter weather conditions, and the colder temperatures actually give the pawpaw tree a chance to go dormant and get ready to produce fruit the following year. The trees are hardy to -20°F, and you usually don’t have to do anything special to successfully overwinter this tree. During the dormant period, you won’t water it. However, a younger pawpaw tree should get planted in the early spring months. To overwinter a younger tree, you’ll have to put it in a sheltered spot where the temperatures don’t dip below 32°F, or freezing.
The perfect conditions for the pawpaw tree is well-draining but rich. If you have soil that is nutrient-poor, you should add compost to increase the soil’s quality. The pawpaw tree can grow nicely in clay, heavy soil, but only if it drains well. Neutral to slightly acidic pH levels are great for this plant.
Temperature and Humidity
As a cold-hardy fruit tree, it’ll do well in zone five while withstanding temperatures that dip down to -20°F. By the same token, the humid, warm summers of the tree’s natural habitat give this tree the perfect conditions to ensure steady growth and fruit production. You’ll have the most success growing this tree if the climate gives you the seasonal swing that these trees have in their natural habitat. They’re accustomed to having a dormant period during the winter to prepare the tree for a productive growing season.
The temperature and humidity are important factors to ensure that your tree grows well, but you don’t want it to get too moist or wet because this encourages root rot or fungal growth.
Younger pawpaw trees do need regular watering sessions. However, your soil should drain very efficiently so you don’t let this tree get waterlogged. Established, mature pawpaw trees by a water source or any tree that gets rainfall regularly will generally require very little water as a supplement. If you decide to plant your tree in an orchard or in a location that gets bright, full sun each day, you may need more irrigation to prevent the soil from drying out.
Propagating Pawpaw Trees
You can propagate pawpaw trees using cuttings or graftings. A lot of nurseries graft scions that they take from dormant trees that are three or four years old. A lot of the scions get grafted onto pawpaw rootstock. This will give you a higher level of success, but it’s a slightly more advanced propagation method. You can also propagate the pawpaw tree by cuttings, but there is a higher failure rate attached. Generally speaking, propagation using seeds is one of the most beginner-friendly and successful ways to propagate the tree.
To start, separate the seeds from the fruit and put them into a plastic bag with moist peat moss. You should never allow your seeds to freeze or dry out because these things can easily kill the seeds. The bagged seed should then get refrigerated for three or four months to mimic the natural dormancy process that winter brings. Sow the seeds the following spring into the ground or pots roughly an inch deep. Most commercially grown pawpaw trees use deep pots to allow the tree to develop a tap root.
Compared to pears and apples, the trueness to the seed parent is very high. So, the seeds will resemble the female parent plant when they sprout and start to grow. So, seeds from high-quality trees and fruit have a 50% chance of producing plants that will also give you high-quality fruit. Only vegetative propagation will give you pawpaw trees that you can rely on to produce high-quality fruit.
How to Grow Pawpaw Tree From Seed
Growing a pawpaw tree from seed is usually the easiest way to start these trees. One simple route you can take is to plant an entire fruit in the ground during the fall months. The fruit usually sends up shoots during the spring. However, if you want to enjoy the fruit instead of planting it, you can harvest the seeds from the fruit and sow them right into the ground. To grow a pawpaw tree from seed, you’ll:
- Get a ripe pawpaw fruit and scoop the seeds out
- Scarify the seeds by scratching the shells of the seeds while avoiding scratching the seed itself. You can use a file or sandpaper to accomplish this.
- During the fall months, you can directly sow the seeds outside where they’ll stratify naturally over the winter before sprouting in the spring. You can also stratify the seeds indoors by putting them in a colder location for 90 to 120 days. The best way to do this is to pop them in a bag with moist sphagnum moss and put them in the refrigerator.
- Once the soil temperature reaches between 75° and 85°F, plant the seeds.
It’s easy to harvest the seeds from the pawpaw fruit to start in the fall as new trees, and one fruit gives a high amount of seeds.
Planting: Seedlings vs. Grafted Trees
There are several pawpaw tree cultivars that produce better fruit. Grafted trees of these cultivars can be more expensive, and you can expect to pay between $35 and $50 per potted tree. If you bought them in wholesale quantities, they would be slightly less expensive, so many people choose to go with the cheaper ungrafted seedlings.
Even though seedlings are a lot less expensive than grafted trees, there is enough genetic variability in this tree that many commercial-style growers take a big gamble if they choose the ungrafted seedlings. They won’t know whether or not their gamble paid off for five to seven years because it can take this long before the trees grow enough to start to bear fruit. On the other hand, grafted trees will start producing fruit between three and four years to give you a quicker payoff.
If you live in a planting zone where pawpaw trees grow naturally, you might be tempted to try and transplant them from the wild. However, wild trees come with very long taproots, and it’s very easy to damage them. Usually, pawpaw trees that grow in wild patches are all rootsuckers that trace back to a single tree, and they have very poorly developed root systems on each individual tree that won’t transplant well.
It can be difficult to transplant nursery-grown pawpaw trees. They have brittle, fleshy roots with root hairs that are very fine, and they’re easy to damage during the transplanting process. To be successful when you transplant them, you should do it in the early spring months when new growth will kick in shortly after. If you damage a lot of the roots, you may want to prune the top of the tree to help balance out the remaining roots and ensure healthy growth.
Pawpaw Tree Harvesting and Post Harvesting
The fruit on this tree will ripen very quickly and easily, and this limits the shipping times. Some cultivars have fruit that will give you a slight color shift from green to yellow, but it’s a poor indicator of how ripe the fruit is. When you gently squeeze the fruit, it should be slightly soft. You should also pay attention to how easy it is to get the fruit off the stem when you pull it. One of the best ripeness indicators is that the fruit fell from the tree. However, since it bruises so easily, you may want to pile hay or straw under the tree to cushion the fruit as it falls.
Also, due to the fruit’s bruising susceptibility and tenderness, pickers want to put something in the boxes to prevent the fruit from bruising. You should never stack the totes or crates with the fruit more than two deep or high. Any fruit you pick before it’s completely ripe but after it starts to get soft will ripen indoors with exposure to room temperature or more slowly if you put them into the refrigerator. They can last up to three weeks stored in the refrigerator.
Pawpaw fruit doesn’t work well in jellies or jams because heating them up will change the flavor. However, they work well in desserts that don’t require heat, like ice cream.
You can tell by looking at the blossoms where most of your fruit is going to be, and this makes it easier to plan out where you’re going to cushion the ground to prevent bruising.
Pawpaw Tree Pruning
Pawpaw trees have happily grown in North America for centuries, and they were a popular dietary addition to the Indigenous Americans. It is a deciduous tree that will develop pretty purple flowers in the spring before leafing. The fruits will start to appear in the summer but won’t get ripe until the fall, and the fruit can grow to be three inches wide by six inches long.
The tree can grow with multiple trunks or with a single one. They also are known for producing clumps of suckers. Pruning your pawpaw tree can be necessary if you want it to have only a single trunk, or you may want to stop new trees from forming from your current tree’s root system.
Cutting back the trees is necessary if you’re trying to establish a single trunk. A lot of gardeners choose to have a tree with one trunk. To do this, you’ll want to pick out the strongest leader and let it grow. Start pruning the less vigorous leaders you see growing from your tree. Cutting back a few of the pawpaw tree’s branches can also lead to a much stronger tree structure. You should check the strength at the point where the branches attach to the trunk. If they have narrow angles or feel weak, consider cutting them back.
Also, pruning is going to be necessary if you see the tree suckers growing very close to the tree. If you leave them alone, they can turn into a very big tree clump. To prune the suckers, you won’t use pruners. Instead, you’ll want to pull them out by hand.
You do want to be very careful that you don’t over prune the tree. Pruning may also not be necessary if you have a central leader that forms naturally and you don’t require space to walk below your tree. Always prune out the weak, dead, or diseased branches as you see them to help avoid issues with disease or pests.
Pawpaw Tree Pests & Plant Diseases
The pawpaw tree is relatively pest-free and hardy, but the occasional fungal diseases like black spot or powdery mildew can be a problem if your tree has a location that is higher humidity or very damp. If it’s black spot, the fruit is still edible. This is a completely aesthetic problem.
The pawpaw peduncle borer will invade your trees occasionally and cause your blossoms to drop too quickly. In turn, you’ll get a much smaller fruit yield. The Zebra Swallowtail butterfly larvae will also feed on the leaves of this tree, but it’s usually not enough to cause a serious threat to the tree’s life.
Common Problems With Pawpaw Trees
Even though you won’t counter a lot of problems with pawpaw trees in the wild, moisture management is one of the biggest issues you’ll run into when you have this plant in your garden. The pawpaw also isn’t a self-pollinating tree and there aren’t a huge amount of natural pollinators for it, and this can cause low or no fruit production. A few other problems to keep in mind are:
Lack of Fruit Production
Even if you plant genetically varied trees right around one another, it can be hard to lure pollinators to the trees. So, the flowers may not get pollinated, and this will cause them to not bear fruit. To solve this issue, you can pollinate the trees by hand. Start by finding the male flowers that are a deep maroon color and wide open. The stamen is visible and it should be covered in pollen. Put a small bag under the bloom and gently move it back and forth to drop the pollen into the bag.
Next, find a female blossom on another tree. Mature female blossoms on the pawpaw tree will also be maroon, but they usually have a slightly greenish tint and open partially. Gently open the blossom enough to get a small paintbrush inside. Dust the paintbrush with your harvested pollen and dab the stigma inside of the flower.
Yellowing leaves are a warning sign that you’re overwatering your pawpaw tree or the soil isn’t draining correctly. Check the soil to ensure that it drains well to start. You may need to add peat moss or compost to help improve the drainage. If you’re overwatering, allow the soil to dry out. You should only water once or twice a week, depending on the humidity and temperature.
Pawpaw Tree – Frequently Asked Questions
There are several questions people have regarding this tree, especially if they’ve never attempted to grow one before. We’ve rounded up the most common questions below.
1. Do you need two pawpaw trees to produce fruit?
Yes. Unfortunately, pawpaw trees are generally not a self-pollinating species, so you’ll need a minimum of two or three trees to ensure fruit production. However, each tree has to be genetically different in order to pollinate. So, you can’t plant one pawpaw tree and expect the offshoot trees that can grow from the suckers to pollinate the same tree.
2. When will pawpaw trees bear fruit?
This depends on whether you grew the tree from seed or used grafting. Grafted trees, like the ones you get from a nursery, usually start bearing fruit within three to four years of planting. For any tree that you grow from seeds, you’ll have to wait between five and eight years before they bear fruit.
3. Do pawpaw trees stink?
The twigs, bark, blossoms, and leaves of the pawpaw tree do have an odor to them. With the blossoms, the odor is a very faint smell that you might not notice unless you smell them. If you tear or crush the leaves, they’ll emit an odor. The scent is subjective and depends on which tree variety you have. Some people say it smells like rotting meat while others say it smells like bell peppers.
You now know how to grow and maintain the pawpaw tree, and you can decide whether or not you want to add this tropical tree to your garden lineup. They’re generally low-maintenance, but they can be finicky when they’re younger until they establish themselves. If you get it right, you’ll get delightful custard-tasting fruits each year.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.