Plant a Paw-Paw Patch

Many people have heard of paw-paws, especially from a children’s song. It is considered an exotic fruit, but I don’t think it should be. It is in fact the largest native North American fruit. They grow easily without diseases, bugs, or heavy predation from local animals. The fruit is extremely delicious. In fact, it is my favorite fruit. The main impediment to it becoming a commercially important fruit is its quick ripening and soft texture which hampers shipping and storage. In fact it may be one of the best fruits to have in your home orchard.

There are a few main challenges in growing paw-paws. The main one is pollination. The paw-paw is not pollinated by bees, because it is evolutionarily older than them. Instead it is pollinated by carrion flies and beetles, so the flower is meat-colored, downward facing, and not so sweet smelling. The paw-paw is not native to the Northwest, so nothing here pollinates it naturally. I have seen houseflies attracted to the flowers naturally, and I have confirmation that it will set some amount of fruit without pollination. However, once you taste the fruit, you won’t want a few fruit, you will want a lot of fruit.

pawpaw flower

To pollinate the paw-paw, act as a bee and hand pollinate with an artist’s paintbrush. You must be careful, however, because each individual flower will only accept pollen from a flower from a genetically distinct individual tree. If you buy two trees, don’t buy the same variety. If one of the plants is a seedling, that will work out, or if you simply buy one tree and graft on another variety, that will work. What I do is collect pollen from the first tree that has pollen in a small pill container and brush that pollen onto the flowers on the next tree before they show pollen, which is when they can accept pollen. I have hung chicken bones to attract carrion flies to the flowers, and others have used this practice to improve pollination. However, I warn you that once I did that and a large animal (presumably a cat) broke two large branches trying to get to the chicken bones. If you get confused, the Kentucky State paw-paw center has a great explanation.

One other issue with paw-paws is that they have a taproot. When you are planting one, empty it out of the pot carefully and place it in loose soil carefully when planting it. I would amend the soil to make it loose and ensure that the roots can grow and establish themselves. Leaving it to fend for itself in heavy clay is not advised. As with most tap-rooted trees, you probably don’t want to move it once it thrives in place, so don’t plant one until you are also “setting down roots.” It probably will take a few years to go from a one gallon pot to make fruit. Mine took 5 years.

The paw-paw is a large fruit that is a little unusual. It is usually light green colored and about the size of a fat and slightly bent cucumber. Sometimes people ask me to describe the taste of paw-paws and usually my best answer is “it tastes like banana ice-cream”. In fact, ice cream is one of the many uses of paw-paws if you end up getting a lot of them. At our house, they don’t last too long, so we haven’t had to worry about preserving them. They usually flower close to apple time in April. In the Midwest, they often ripen in August, but due to our cool nights and rainy Springs, they usually fruit in September and October here. The leaves of the tree are large and tropical-looking, because the asimina genus of paw-paws is the only genus of an otherwise tropical group of fruits, like cherimoya and soursop.

The paw-paw has several black disk-shaped seeds in each fruit. You can plant them to try to make more paw-paw plants. However, it is a little complicated, because they must remain moist, and when they do germinate, they will need shade to protect them from the sun for the first year. In nature, this happens naturally, as the seeds grow under the mother plant, making a paw-paw patch.

The paw-paw is not a large tree. It typically grows to be about 15 feet tall and it has an attractive pyramidal shape. The branches are not large. The leaves make an attractive yellow color in the fall. The paw-paw needs chilling in order to set fruit, but that is not anything that we lack in the Northwest. The paw-paw is probably the fruit tree that is most under-planted in our typical home orchard.

Pome News, Fall 2007