The pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is a native edible that is often overlooked and misunderstood.  Not only does it produce a delicious fruit that looks like a mango and tastes like a banana, but it is also an aesthetic landscape plant.  This fruit is slowly gaining popularity with younger generations and a handful of universities (Kentucky State University and the University of Missouri) are working on cultivar improvements.

A pawpaw tree in the woods.

A pawpaw tree growing in the woods. Photo credit: Matt Lollar, University of Florida/IFAS Extension – Santa Rosa County

The pawpaw is native to the eastern United States (USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 5-8), however it’s closest relatives are all tropical such as the custard apple, cherimoya, and soursop.  The pawpaw, along with these fruits, are known for their custard-like texture which may be a unpleasant for some consumers.  Pawpaws are relatively hardy, have few insect pests, and can still produce fruit in partial shade (although they produce more fruit when grown in full sun).

Pawpaws perform best in moist, well-drained soils with a pH between 5.5 and 7.0.  They are found growing wild in full to partial shade, but more fruit are produced when trees are grown in full sun.  However, pawpaws need some protection from wind and adequate irrigation in orchard settings.  Trees can grow to between 12 feet to 25 feet tall and should be planted at least 15 feet apart.  In the Florida Panhandle, flowers bloom in early spring and fruit ripen from August to October depending on variety and weather.

Young pawpaw fruit

Young pawpaw fruit growing on a small tree. Photo Credit: Matt Lollar, University of Florida/IFAS Extension at Santa Rosa County

A number of improved cultivars of pawpaws have been developed that produce more fruit with more flavor than native seedlings/saplings.  The University of Missouri has conducted trials on the following pawpaw cultivars:  ‘Sunflower’; ‘PA Golden’; ‘Wells’; ‘NC-1’; ‘Overleese’; ‘Shenandoah’; ‘Susquehanna’; and ’10-35′.  Most of these cultivars performed well in southern Missouri, however yields may differ in the Florida Panhandle.  The full results of the trial can be found in the “Pawpaw – Unique Native Fruit” publication.

Pawpaws can be propagated by seed or cuttings.  Unlike most fruit trees, pawpaws are usually true to seed meaning that saved seed produces a tree with similar characteristics to the parent tree.  To save seeds, place fresh seeds in a bag of moist peat moss and refrigerate for 3 to 4 months before planting.  To vegetatively propagate, take cuttings (pencil thin in diameter) in the winter and store in a refrigerator until early spring.  Cuttings should be chip budded onto seedling rootstock during the spring.  Please visit this publication from the University of Nebraska for more information on chip budding.

Pawpaw fruit are ready to harvest when they are slightly soft when gently squeezed.  Fruits picked prior to being fully ripe, but after they start to soften, will ripen indoors at room temperature or in a refrigerator.  Already-ripe fruit will stay fresh for a few days at room temperature or for a few weeks in the refrigerator.  To enjoy pawpaw fruit throughout the year, scoop out the flesh, remove the seeds, and place the flesh in freezer bags and freeze.

Whether you want to add more native plants to your landscape or you are a rare and unusual fruit enthusiast, pawpaw may be the tree for you.  They can be utilized as a focal point in the garden and provide delicious fruit for your family.  For more information on pawpaw or other fruit trees, please contact your local Extension Office.