Description & Overview
Paw Paw is a temperate, tropical-looking tree that is native to North America. It sets relatively large fruit that tastes like a cross between a banana and a mango. The fruit is delicious as well as nutritious and was eaten by Native Americans and early settlers alike before the arrival of the fruit trees we rely upon today. In modern times, happy hikers get to eat the ripe fruits they find along the trail in early Fall. Paw Paw is also resistant to deer (great for Wisconsin) and has few pests or disease issues.
Paw Paw’s larger leaves add a tropical feel to your landscape. They are beautiful and dense, and this alone makes it worth planting. It can stand alone as an ornamental specimen that shows off its spring flowers, dense/unique foliage, fall color, and fall-ripening fruit.
Plant it in a sheltered location to protect it from the wind. A small group of these dense trees looks at home in a shade garden. In their native range, they are understory trees that live in the high-quality soil in the forest, therefore they do well in shade. Although, it does need fertile soil, they are flexible when it comes to lighting. Paw Paw gets the best fruit production in full sun. Plant in an edible garden or in a garden geared toward wildlife.
Paw Paw is not self-pollinating. Plant a group of trees for the best fruit production. Be sure the trees come from seed before planting. Plant two or more trees within 15-30 feet to ensure proper pollination.
Flowers are pollinated by flies and beetles. Zebra Swallowtail uses Paw Paw as a host plant, and their range and survival are inextricably linked. Paw Paw Sphinx Moth caterpillars also eat the leaves.
Squirrels, opossums, raccoons, and birds will enjoy the fruit. Fruits are picked up quickly by wildlife and as a result, can sometimes be difficult for humans to find in the wild. Pick fruits promptly as wildlife will scoop them up and they have a short shelf life.
Deer resistant! Documentation shows that Paw Paw saplings often dominate forests where deer browse is prevalent. They find it distasteful, thereby leaving saplings alone while foraging heavily on the saplings of other species. This also cuts down on competition from other plants.
Saplings are sensitive to the full sun. Many growers will plant their young trees in full-sun, but protect it with shade cloth in the first year. Once the tree matures a year or two, they remove the shade cloth to invite full sun. This removes the need to transplant and allows the roots to continue establishing. If you’re in a situation where fruit optimization is not important, then the tree will do fine in partial or full shade.
The flower smells like decaying meat to attract flies and beetles. Historically, people would hang a carcass from the tree to attract more pollinators. Nowadays, people prefer to plant groups to attract more pollinators. If this is not an option, you can also pollinate by hand. Again, they are not self-pollinating and need to be planted near another tree from different stock to ensure optimal pollination.
Fruits are ripe when the fruit body is slightly soft (similar to mango), and they’re easy to pick off the stem. Ripening also tends to coincide when the fruit falls naturally off the tree. Once ripe, fruits have a very short shelf life. A few days. However, refrigerating them could extend their life by up to 3 weeks. The peel is bitter. There are large seeds inside. The flesh of the fruit tastes like a mix of banana and mango, and the consistency is slightly mushy. It can be eaten alone, you can incorporate it into dishes. Recipes online are abundant; you can even find Paw Paw ice cream!
Very few. The Peduncle Borer can sometimes cause flower drop, but it does not cause enough damage to warrant action. Asimina webworm feeds on leaves and stems, forming webs as they feed. This has caused issues in orchards that are located inside their native range. The treatment is manual removal.
Flyspeck can affect the leaves and quality of the fruit. This occurs with a lot of precipitation and high humidity. Ensure proper ventilation with proper spacing and pruning.
Paw Paw is Missouri’s official state tree. In its native range, it’s is not only a source of pride but is woven into its history, both culinary and cultural. A couple that had moved to Wisconsin from Missouri came into the nursery, and when they saw our Paw Paw, the look on their faces said it all. It was the same face one gets when reminiscing while looking through a photo album. They bought one, they couldn’t resist.
Paw Paw is the only temperate member of a tropical plant family, all of which carry similar fruits. It is native to most of eastern US and the lower Midwest from zones 5-8 and does indeed like hot summers but also cold winters.
Name: The name “Pawpaw” seems to be somehow linked to the papaya. The fruits of both are somewhat similar. The papaya is also sometimes called “papaw.”
Historical Uses: The inner bark is fibrous and has historically been used for cordage. Native Americans used the fibrous inner bark to make cloth.
Paw Paw contains acetogenins, which are anti-carcinogens. You can find herbal extracts in commerce.
There are many people, especially those within its native range, that grow Paw Paws. There are growers’ associations that have useful growing information and more support. As interest in native plants continues to grow in Wisconsin, customers show more interest. You can grow food in your backyard (on the scale of larger edible fruit – i.e stone fruits like Apples and Pears) with a native tree. Food magazines occasionally feature it, and recipes are available and abundant.
Attempts to make Paw Paw fruit available commercially have been unsuccessful due to its the fruit’s short shelf life and propensity for bruising. Prevent bruising by picking it before it hits the ground. Some go so far as to create a crash pad on the ground below the branches. While picking, and then when storing, the fruits cannot be piled on top of each other as their weight will also cause bruising. You can see why this would be problematic when trying to collect, package, and ship the fruit in large numbers. Propagators work to create cultivars to address this issue, but none are currently available.
Other Paw Paws! Greater numbers and more genetic diversity help with pollination. Plant an orchard.
This is also be a great tree to plant with other native plants that are valuable to wildlife or and/or edible by humans. Plant with American Elderberry under the shade of a Shagbark Hickory or with American Filbert (Hazelnut). Plant with Serviceberry, Thimbleberry, or New Jersey Tea. You could also plant it near a vegetable garden!