Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Permaculture Plants: Pawpaw

Pawpaws in Fruit

Common Name(s): Pawpaw, Paw Paw, Paw-paw, Prairie Banana
Scientific Name: Asimina triloba
Family: Annonaceae

White to yellow tropical tasting pulp.

Cold hardy deciduous small tree or large shrub with large tropical looking leaves and tropical tasting fruit.  The fruit can be described as resembling small thin mangoes.  You do not eat the skin or the large brown seeds, but the pulp is white to yellow, creamy, and smooth and tastes like a mix of vanilla pudding or bananas with hits of mango and pineapple - very tropical!

Native to eastern North America with the largest native North American fruit.  Has never been cultivated at the scale of apples or peaches due to the fact that the fruit will not last long after picking and it doesn't  ship well.  In recent years, it has becoming more popular due to it distinctive growth habits, fresh fruit, low maintenance, and new cultivars that allow it to grow in areas outside its native habitat.

  • Some areas of the world also call the papaya a pawpaw, but the papaya is a true tropical fruit tree, and not related.
  • Earliest documented mention of the pawpaw is a 1541 report from conquistador Hernando de Soto's expedition where they found Native Americans cultivating the plant.
  • Chilled pawpaw was a favorite dessert of George Washington.
  • Thomas Jefferson grew pawpaws at Monticello.
  • Pawpaws are the larval host of the zebra swallowtail butterfly, but the caterpillars usually do not inflict much damage to the plant.

Freshly harvested pawpaws

Primary Uses:
  • Fresh Eating
  • Dried
  • Baking in desserts (puddings, pies, cakes) - can be used as a banana equivalent 
  • Pancakes
  • Ice cream
  • Jams and Jellies
  • Juices (straight or mixed with tropical fruit juices)
  • Beer, Wine, and Brandy

Secondary Uses:
  • If allowed to form a thicket, a "pawpaw patch" can provide shelter for birds and small animals.
  • Leaves, twigs, and bark can be used as an insecticide.
  • Can be coppiced for bark to be used as an insecticide.
  • Tough, fibrous inner bark was used to make ropes, mats, and fishing nets.

Yield: 25 lbs per plant; 1-3 bushels (35-105 liters)

August - October (depending on variety and location). 
Ripe fruits have soft skin and will start to turn yellow with dark speckles or blotches.  Ripe fruits will tend to drop, so a soft understory planted below is a good idea.  Almost ripe fruit will ripen in a sunny window.

Best eaten fresh or within a few days of becoming ripe.  Slightly underripe fruit will store in the refrigerator for about a month.  You can also scoop out the pulp, remove the seeds, and freeze for many months if desired.

Pawpaw flower (pollinated by flies) and large leaves

Chill Requirement: 1,000 - 1,800 Units or Hours

Plant Type: Small Tree or Large Shrub
Leaf Type: Deciduous (large 8-12 inch dark green leaves that turn yellow in the fall)
Forest Garden Use: Tree or Understory Tree/Large Shrub
Cultivars/Varieties: Over a dozen to choose from, and more are being developed.  Choose a named variety for best flavor and production.

Needs cross-pollination from another variety for best fruit production.
Pawpaws are pollinated by flies.

Flowering: May - June
Years to Begin Bearing: 4-6 years

Pawpaw in autumn

Size: 12-35 feet (4-10 m) tall and wide
Roots: Single taproot or heart-shaped root pattern (a number of main roots all spreading out and down); will send up shoots at a distance from the trunk from roots.
Growth Rate: Slow to medium

John Audobon's painting of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo eating a zebra swallowtail butterfly in a pawpaw.

Light: Full Sun preferred.
Shade: Tolerates a moderate amount of shade.
Moisture: Medium
pH: 5.1-7.0

Special Considerations for Growing:
Pawpaws are one of the few plants that tolerate juglone, a chemical produced by black walnuts that can poison other plants, so pawpaws can be used as a buffer plant between your black walnuts and your other forest garden plants.

Grafting or seedlings (slow to germinate and need at least 13 weeks stratification)

Almost none once established.  Thickets can form from shoots that sprout from spreading roots, and these may provide too much shade for good fruit production, so consider cutting out the shoots from time to time to prevent this.  Fruit is borne on year-old stems, so older trees may have increased fruit production if occasionally thinned.

All parts of the pawpaw, other than the delicious fruit, are poisonous.  Some people may develop hives after eating pawpaws or handling the fruit.  Use caution when first sampling and working with this plant.
While slow growing, pawpaws can form thickets by putting out shoots from their roots.  


  1. This is a very informative website. The articles seem to be very well researched. I saw other sites that incorrectly portrayed paw paws using the picture of a papaya, when they are not the same fruit and are not even related. I used to have a fruit and vegetables business when I was 14 years old and got to plant and climb a few trees in those days. I can definitely distinguish paw paw from papaya. keep up the great work you are doing.

  2. Thank you for this article. I just planted some pawpaw seedlings. I can't wait until I get fruit (but I have to)!

  3. yes this website is amazing, such exhaustive useful info, thanks!

  4. You can find pawpaw fruit trees for saleat http://www.paradisenursery.com

  5. One of the best fruits still pretty unknown....:)

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