What Is A Pawpaw Tree? (5 Key Things To Know)


Pawpaw trees are exotic-looking, and they may seem mysterious if you have never seen or heard of them.  However, they are great at providing both shade and sustenance, so you might consider growing them in your garden if the climate is right.

So, what is a Pawpaw tree?  A Pawpaw tree is a deciduous fruit tree native to the Eastern U.S. & Canada. It has large, oblong green leaves & red, purple or maroon flowers with a slight unpleasant odor. The edible Pawpaw fruit is green when unripe, but it turns yellow-green or brown when ripe and begins to smell sweet.

Of course, you can use the black or brown seeds from inside a Pawpaw fruit to grow more of your own trees, but it can take several years to get fruit from a new tree this way.

In this article, we’ll talk about Pawpaw trees, answering some common questions about them and their growing conditions.

Let’s get started.

What Is A Pawpaw Tree?

A Pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba) is a type of deciduous understory fruit tree that is native to the eastern U.S. & Canada.  It produces small (1 to 2 inch), reddish-purple or maroon flowers with three lobes in early spring (they have a slight yeast smell).

pawpaw fruit on branch
Pawpaw trees can grow to a height of 15 to 25 feet or more. They produce large, edible, sweet fruit.

A pawpaw tree produces yellowish-green to brown fruit in September or October.  The fruit contains brown or black seeds, and it is the largest native fruit in North America.

According to garden.org, some other common names for Pawpaw include:

  • Papaw
  • Common Pawpaw
  • Banango (banana + mango)
  • Ozark Banana
  • Missouri Banana
  • Poor Man’s Banana
  • Kansas Banana
  • Michigan Banana
  • West Virginia Banana
  • Wild Banana
  • American Custard Apple
  • Indiana Banana
  • Hoosier Banana
  • Prairie Banana
  • Indian Banana

The Pawpaw tree belongs to the genus Asimina.  Remember that a Pawpaw is not the same as a papaya!

How To Identify A Pawpaw Tree

A Pawpaw tree has large light to medium green leaves, which are palm-like and provide lots of shade cover as the tree grows.  These leaves look somewhat like ovals, but thinner at the base (near the branch) than at the ends.

The leaves, branches, and bark also have a slightly disagreeable odor.  This is due to the presence of acetogenins, which act as a natural insecticide to protect the tree.

(This anti-insect compound also makes the trees resistant to deer and rabbits).

The leaves turn yellow and fall off in fall, since the Pawpaw tree is deciduous.  The bark of the tree is mostly smooth in appearance and feel, although it does have small wart-like lenticels.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of a Pawpaw tree is its reddish-purple or maroon flowers, which appear in spring.  They can have a somewhat unpleasant aroma, which helps to attract flies (one of their pollinators).

pawpaw flower
Pawpaw flowers are reddish-purple or maroon, and they may have a slight unpleasant aroma to attract flies, which help with pollination.

In late summer to early fall, the yellowish-green or brown fruit also appears on the tree.  It is 2.5 to 6 inches long, weighs 6 to 12 ounces, and has a sweet and pleasant aroma.

The fruit is darker green when unripe and turns yellowish-green to brown when ripe.  The fruit also becomes softer when it ripens (don’t press to hard though, or you will bruise or puncture the skin).

Where Does The Pawpaw Tree Grow?

Pawpaw Trees grow in the Eastern, Southern, and Midwestern U.S., as well as in Canada.  In fact, they grow at least as far west as Nebraska, and at least as far south as the northern parts of Florida.

They often grow in floodplains or in shady areas, although they will do fine in full sun.  They can tolerate temporary moist soil, but prefer well-draining soil.

daylight
Mature Pawpaw trees can tolerate sun or shade. Young Pawpaw trees need some shade until they are established (1 to 2 years or 18 inches tall).

What Zones Do Pawpaw Trees Grow In?

Pawpaw trees grow in USDA Hardiness Zones 5a (as cold as -20 degrees Fahrenheit or -29 degrees Celsius) to Zone 8b.  Thus, they are cold-hardy and can tolerate frost and severe freezing.

Pawpaw trees need chill hours to break dormancy.  If your climate is too warm, they might grow, but they won’t be able to produce fruit.

According to Louisiana State University, a Pawpaw tree needs 400 to 1200 chilling hours, defined as temperatures of 32 to 45 degrees Celsius (0 to 7 degrees Celsius).

Pawpaw Tree Size

Pawpaw trees will not grow as large in a container as they will in open ground, due to the restrictions on their root growth.  However, this may be desirable if you are growing them indoors or on a patio where you want them to stay small.

How Tall Is A Pawpaw Tree?

A Pawpaw tree will usually grow to a height of 15 to 35 feet tall.  However, there are cases where they can grow to a height of 45 to 60 feet tall if their roots are undisturbed and they get enough water, sunlight, and good soil.

How Big Is A Pawpaw Tree?

A Pawpaw tree can get pretty big: the tree’s branches often have a width of 15 to 30 feet.  The spread largely depends on the height: as the tree grows taller, its branches spread out more to shade a larger ground area.

Pawpaw Tree Planting & Care

Pawpaw trees are not too picky, but there are some things to be aware of in terms of planting location (such as light, soil pH, and moisture levels).

Where To Plant A Pawpaw Tree

Pawpaw trees need moderate moisture levels.  So, don’t plant them in an area that is too wet (such as an area that has clay soil and is prone to flooding) or too dry.

According to the University of Florida Extension, Pawpaw trees prefer slightly acidic neutral soil (pH of 5.5 to 7.0) for ideal growth.

You can learn how to do a soil test to check your soil pH in my article here.

When To Plant A Pawpaw Tree

The best time to plant a Pawpaw tree is in early spring or fall.  These are the times when the tree is not actively growing (dormant).

Can You Grow A Pawpaw Tree From Seed?

You can grow a Pawpaw tree from seed.  However, it will take longer for the tree to grow to maturity and produce fruit when starting from seed.

To grow a Pawpaw tree from seed, follow these steps:

  • Collect the ripened fruit from a Pawpaw tree.
  • Remove the black or brown seeds.
  • Clean off the seeds by removing the flesh (don’t scrub them hard enough to damage them!)
  • Put the seeds in a cold, moist place for 3 to 4 months (90 to 120 days).  Don’t let them dry out.
  • Plant the seeds (in a potting soil mix) and keep them warm at 70 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit (21 to 24 degrees Celsius).
pawpaw fruit & seeds
You can collect the brown or black seeds from Pawpaw fruit, expose them to moist cold for 3 to 4 months, and plant them to grow new trees!

According to the Iowa State University Extension, one option is to put the seeds in a mixture (50% sand, 50% peat moss) and put the seeds and soil mix in the refrigerator (a sealed plastic bag or container would probably be a good idea to avoid a mess!)

You can also sow the seeds in fall where you want the tree to grow, and then let Mother Nature give the seeds the natural cold exposure they need.  If all goes well, the seeds will germinate in the following year (although not until later in the summer).

Do Pawpaw Trees Spread?

In my experience, Pawpaw trees will spread all over the place!  Given enough sunlight, water, and good soil, they will produce lots of fruit.

The fruit will eventually fall to the ground after it ripens.  Some of the seeds will grow into new seedlings right under the tree’s canopy.

Other seeds will find a new home far away from the Pawpaw tree, after animals (squirrels, birds, etc.) carry them to a new location.

Can You Grow A Pawpaw Tree In A Pot?

You can grow a Pawpaw tree in a pot or container.  Just keep in mind that its growth will eventually be stunted, since the pot will limit its root growth.

pawpaw flower buds
You can start a Pawpaw tree in a pot, but its size will always be limited by the container unless you transplant it before its roots and taproot become too large.

To avoid this limited growth, transplant the Pawpaw before it becomes root bound in its pot (more on transplanting below).

Can You Transplant A Pawpaw Tree?

You can transplant a Pawpaw tree, but it will often die if you damage the taproot.  This can happen if you cut the taproot with a shovel when digging up a wild Pawpaw tree or a “volunteer” growing in your garden.

A Pawpaw in a container is a better candidate for transplant.  A Pawpaw in a container has all of its roots in one place, and you won’t have to dig it out of the ground (so there is less chance of damaging the taproot).

According to Purdue University, transplanting a smaller Pawpaw seedling might be possible.  To increase the chance of success, transplant in the spring.

If you must transplant a Pawpaw tree, try to keep the roots intact, along with the soil around them.  If you transplant seedlings, remember to provide shade in their new location for the first year or two (if they are young).

Do Pawpaw Trees Need Full Sun?

Mature Pawpaw trees need full sun if you want them to produce as much fruit as possible.  However, they will tolerate partial shade.

pawpaw tree flowers and buds
Mature Pawpaw trees will produce more fruit in full sun. However, young trees (1 to 2 years old) need some shade from the sun’s rays.

However, young Pawpaw trees should not get full sun right away.  According to the North Carolina State University Extension, young pawpaw trees are sensitive to intense sunlight.

So, try to give them shade until they are at least 18 inches tall (for the first and possibly the 2nd year).  You can do this with shade cloth (learn more in my article here).

How To Prune A Pawpaw Tree

According to Stark Brothers, the best time to prune Pawpaw trees is in late winter or early spring (before the tree breaks dormancy).

pruning shears
A little bit of pruning can go a long way for fruit trees, and Pawpaws are no exception.

Removing dead or diseased branches can help to keep the tree looking neat (for aesthetic purposes) and to avoid the spread of disease (for health purposes).

Pruning is beneficial for older trees, since it stimulates new growth (and Pawpaw trees produce fruit on new growth).

You can learn more about pruning Pawpaw trees from Stark Brothers.

Pawpaw Tree Pollination & Fruit

Pawpaw trees have very interesting flowers: they are reddish-purple or maroon in color, and they sometimes have a faint foul odor.  However, these strange flowers can grow into sweet, delicious fruit, and lots of it!

Can One Pawpaw Tree Bear Fruit?

A single Pawpaw tree cannot bear fruit.  Although their flowers are perfect (containing both male and female parts), Pawpaw trees are not self pollinating.

So, you will need at least two different varieties of Pawpaw to get proper pollination and fruit set.

What Pollinates A Pawpaw Tree?

A Pawpaw tree attracts numerous pollinators, including:

  • Beetles
  • Butterflies
  • Flies

The fruit of Pawpaw trees may also attract songbirds, turkeys, bears, foxes, and smaller mammals (like squirrels).

fly insect
The fly is one insect that helps to pollinate Pawpaw trees, perhaps attracted by the odor of the flowers.

Can You Eat The Fruit From A Pawpaw Tree?

You can eat the flesh of the fruit from a Pawpaw tree, but not the skin or seeds.  The taste of the fruit is like a combination of banana, pineapple, and mango.

One downside is that the fruit begins to ferment soon after picking.  To preserve Pawpaw fruit, you can:

  • freeze it
  • cut it into slices and dehydrate it
  • turn it into jam or jelly
  • use a pressure canner

When Does A Pawpaw Tree Bear Fruit?

Pawpaw trees produce fruit in late summer to early fall. A Pawpaw tree bears fruit 5 to 8 years after planting from seed.  If you use cuttings to propagate a Pawpaw tree, it is possible to get fruit from the tree in 3 to 4 years.

You can also buy established Pawpaw trees that will produce fruit in 3 to 4 years after you plant them.

Finding & Buying Pawpaw Trees

Depending on where you live, you might be able to find Pawpaw seeds, seedlings, or trees locally for purchase.

Where Can I Find A Pawpaw Tree?

You can buy Pawpaw seeds, seedlings, and trees at many online retailers, including:

Note that you cannot ship Pawpaw trees to certain states – check on the retailer’s website to be certain.

How Much Does A Pawpaw Tree Cost?

A small Pawpaw tree (18 to 36 inches tall) will generally cost $60 to $80.  However, you can get seeds for as little as $0.25 each and seedlings for $20 each.

Of course, you could pay as much as $160 or more for established trees (8 to 9 feet tall).

Is The Pawpaw Tree Endangered?

Overall, the Pawpaw tree is not endangered.  In many areas of the United States, it is common to find these trees, since they resist deer and rabbits that other species may succumb to.

However, Pawpaw trees are considered threatened or vulnerable in some areas:

  • Pawpaw trees are considered a threatened species in New York.
  • Pawpaw trees are considered an endangered species in New Jersey.
  • Pawpaw trees are considered vulnerable in Canada.

Conclusion

Now you know what a Pawpaw tree is and some of the basics for its care.  You also know where to find them if you want to purchase (check your Plant Hardiness Zone first!)

You can learn more about Pawpaw trees from the National Park Service.

I hope you found this article helpful.  If so, please share it with someone who can use the information.

If you want to read some of my most popular posts, check out the “Best of GreenUpSide” page here.  Enjoy!

~Jonathon

jonathon.david.madore

Hi, I'm Jon. Let's solve your gardening problems, spend more time growing, and get the best harvest every year!

Recent Posts