Paw paw trees produce banana-like fruits, but you have to help them pollinate. Read our tips for how to do so below.
Paw Paw Tree Overview
|Origin||Canada and the United States|
|Scientific Name||Asimina triloba|
|Type||Deciduous fruiting tree or shrub|
|Common Names||Paw paw tree, papaw, paw-paw|
|Height||Up to 30 feet|
|Light||Full sun to partial shade|
|Watering||Maintain moist soil|
Caring for Your Paw Paw Tree
The paw paw tree grows natively in eastern regions of the United States, as well as some provinces of Canada, in areas with naturally rich fertile soil such as along riversides and woodlands. It thrives in conditions where the soil is typically quite moist. To grow the plant in your own garden, you’ll need to recreate these conditions as closely as possible.
The paw paw tree also likes to be grown in slightly acidic soil, so you may need to test your soil and make the necessary amendments before planting the tree. You can buy soil testing kits online, or you can contact your local extension office for help with this. Once you have identified any areas of improvement, this is fairly easy to fix.
Paw paw trees need well-draining soil that is high in organic matter. You can encourage good drainage by adding sand or grit to your soil, working it through your soil to a deep level. Adding some organic matter such as well-rotted compost will also help drainage, and will help your soil to become richer.
Once planted, you can dress the top soil around your tree with more compost annually, as this will further improve the quality of your soil, while also adding vital nutrients. Depending on the condition of your soil when you are planting your tree, you may need to add fertilizer to the soil with high nutrient content, as young paw paw trees need plenty of food to develop well in their first year.
The most reliable way to have a good paw paw tree of your own is to buy a young tree in a container from a nursery. These will have been cultivated specifically to bear tasty fruit and be resistant to pests and disease.
It is possible to grow the tree from seed though this may result in a tree that bears no resemblance to the parent plant. If you do wish to try this, simply place a ripe paw paw fruit in the ground and cover it with a thin layer of soil. Paw paw seeds need to be kept moist, as well as a period of sustained cold, to germinate. This means that fall, after the harvest, is the best time for planting. If seedlings sprout from the fruit seeds, you will need to thin them out to ensure each plant has enough room to grow.
When planting cultivars bought from nurseries, first dig a hole in your ground, which is slightly bigger than the plant's pot. Remove the tree from its pot and gently tease the roots apart if any are compacted or rootbound. Lower the root ball into the ground and backfill around it, ensuring the tree is at the same level in the soil as it was in the pot. Gently stamp down the ground around the tree to ensure it is secure. Water the tree deeply, and if you wish, add mulch to the top of the soil to help with moisture retention, though be sure to keep the mulch away from the trunk of the tree.
The paw paw tree likes to be kept in continuously moist soil. This is especially true when the tree is young, so water it thoroughly and regularly to ensure its moisture needs are met. As with any plant, the paw paw tree is susceptible to root rot, so don’t water it to the extreme as this will cause more damage than depriving the tree of water would.
The best way to avoid root rot is to plant the tree in well-draining soil so that any excess water can drain away from the roots of the plant. In the winter, you won’t need to water the plant at all, providing your local region experiences sufficient rainfall.
The paw paw tree can be grown as a tree or as a shrub, and depending on your intentions, the plant will have slightly different requirements when it comes to light. When grown as a tree, you should plant the tree in a full sun location. This will allow the tree to reach heights of up to 30 feet.
While you might be tempted to grow the tree in a wide-open space, as this will allow it full sun, you should actually, if possible, situate it in a spot where it is offered some shelter from the wind. Paw paw trees are sensitive to strong winds, and can permanently suffer from twisted branches if they aren’t well protected. To offer some protection, plant the tree nearby to a building or a fence.
If you are growing your paw paw tree as a shrub, then partial shade will be preferable. Under the canopy of a taller tree would be ideal as this will allow some light to penetrate through to the paw paw tree, while still offering some shade. The lower amount of light will prevent the paw paw from growing too tall, and help it to form a shrub habit. You will also need to encourage this by pruning effectively and allowing suckers to grow up from the soil to form a thicket.
The paw paw tree is native to the United States, growing in temperate climates in eastern states. The tree is hardy through USDA growing zones 5 to 9, making it an ideal tree to grow if your region experiences a good balance of temperatures throughout the year, experiencing neither extreme cold or extreme heat.
The paw paw tree is not self-fertile, which means if you want your paw paw to bear fruits, then you will need to grow two of the trees; one male and one female. Unfortunately, your responsibilities for helping pollination won’t end here. The insects which pollinate paw paw trees are known for being rather inefficient, and there also isn’t an abundance of these insects, which means that pollination can be a struggle, even if you are growing a male and a female paw paw tree nearby of each other.
For this reason, if you are keen to grow the paw paw fruit, it is recommended that you hand pollinate. This is an easier task than it sounds, and simply involves the use of a soft-tipped paint brush and a bowl.
When you notice yellow grains of pollen on the ends of the anthers within the flowers of the male tree, either in late spring or early summer, then it is time to collect the pollen. Do this by holding a bowl under the flowers and gently tapping them to make the pollen fall into the bowl. You then need to gently paint the pollen onto the center of the flowers of your female tree.
Each flower will produce several fruits, so be cautious not to over pollinate as this might result in a tree bearing too many fruits, which will cause the branches to bend or snap under the weight. An alternative way to help encourage pollination for those who don’t like to be so hands-on is to hang a piece of meat or roadkill from a branch of the tree. Flies can pollinate paw paw trees, so rotting meat will attract an abundance of flies to the area where your tree is and increase the likelihood of pollination occurring.
Fruits and Flowers
The flowers of the paw paw tree are deep burgundy, appearing in spring and adding great ornamental value to the tree. Many people also grow this tree for its foliage, which turns a bright yellow in fall before dropping from the tree in winter.
The flowers of the tree, if successfully pollinated, then develop into the paw paw fruit. The fruit typically measures around 6 inches in length and is the largest fruit natively grown in the United States (National Park Service). It has a creamy custard-like tropical flavor, similar to a banana. The fruit is short-lived, and quickly turns bad once removed from the tree, which is why it is not commonly found in grocery stores, and more likely to be spotted at local farmers markets.
Once harvested, eat your paw paws immediately, taking care to spit out the seeds, or try to extend their life by a few days by storing in the fridge. You can also freeze the fruit and then use them in smoothies or pies.
Despite the fruit being edible, some people may find that they have a bad reaction to eating it, as it contains annonacin, which is mildly toxic to some. Symptoms can include intense stomach pain, and digestive issues, as well as skin irritation from handling the paw paw fruit. It is recommended to eat the fruit in moderation to avoid these ill effects (North Carolina State University Extension).
If you have any questions about paw paw trees, let us know in the comments, and don’t forget to share this page with others who may be interested in growing paw paws.