Establishing a Pawpaw Tree in Your Backyard

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What is a pawpaw?

Growing pawpaws has been increasing in popularity among home gardeners and producers. The North American native pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is a native understory tree found in temperate zones across the eastern United States and Canada. It can grow in both full shade and full sunlight, making it unique compared to other plants. The pawpaw’s close relatives are tropical and their fruit has a semi-tropical appearance, looking like a mango. The flesh of the fruit is custard-like with a sweet taste. Fruits range from 2.5 to 6 inches in size. Plants are beetle and fly-pollinated but can be manually pollinated by hand for a better fruit set. Under cultivation, one tree has the potential to produce 25-50 lbs. of fruit per tree.

Preferred site conditions:

The pawpaw can grow in both full shade and sunlight, making it unique to other plants. It prefers moist and well-drained soils with a slightly acidic pH (5.5 – 5.7). It is recommended to take a soil sample before planting to know what is in the soil before you grow. Pawpaws can be planted along riparian buffers, next to creeks or streams, and wetland areas. Plants can be grown in USDA hardiness zones 5a through 9b. If seedlings are being planted, it is recommended to plant them in the shade the first year due to the plants’ sensitivity to ultraviolet light.

Tree establishment:

Pawpaw trees should be planted when the tree is dormant, either in the fall or early spring. The taproot of the tree can be easily damaged when planting, so please use caution to ensure tree survival. The trees should be spaced 8-15 ft apart. Although an understory tree, mature pawpaw trees can be upward of 12-15 ft tall. Both seedlings and trees are available at nurseries. Seeds can also be propagated and planted

Care after Planting:

In the first few years after planting, the trees will need an ample amount of water. Weed control around the trees is important during tree establishment because it lowers the pest and disease pressure. Also, a 6-8-inch layer of straw or wood chips can be added for weed control and moisture retention. 

Pawpaw trees will produce fruit 4-8 years after planting. Fruits typically ripen over a two-week period. Depending on the variety, the fruit can ripen from August until October. After harvest, the fruit has a short shelf life of 5-7 days and up to 3 weeks in the refrigerator. 

Recommended Cultivars:

There are at least 45 pawpaw cultivars available that have been bred for desired characteristics. Many papaw cultivars are grafted onto other cultivars’ rootstocks to increase production. Named grafted cultivars are usually two years old when purchased. 

‘Convis’ – Produces large yellow-fleshed fruits up to 1 pound

‘Davis’ – An older cultivar developed in Michigan that produces 1/2  pound fruit, 

‘Overleese’ – Heavy-producing plant with 1-pound fruit clusters

‘Mango’ – Is a vigorously growing cultivar with orange-yellow flesh. It was developed in Georgia

‘NC-1’ – Hybrid cultivar developed in Canada that is highly productive with early ripening fruit.

‘Sunflower’ – Produces an 8-ounce fruit with a butter-yellow flesh. It is also said to be self-fertile and was selected in Kansas.

Matthew Clay is Horticulture Agent for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Wilkes County.