The Pawpaw is the largest edible fruit native to North America. It is a taste sensation with tropical fruit flavors reminiscent of banana, papaya, mango, and pineapple. You may well wonder why it doesn’t appear on the shelves at your local grocery store; quite simply, its shelf life is too short, and the fruits bruise easily. The solution, to find Pawpaw trees and pick the fruit yourself, and to help you with that, we will be looking at how to find pawpaw trees in this article.
What You'll Learn Today
What is a Pawpaw Tree?
Pawpaw was said to be President George Washington’s favorite dessert, but many people have never seen, let alone tasted one.
The Pawpaw tree’s Latin name is Asimina Triloba, and there are mentions of them in documents written by the first explorers of North America as far back as 1541.
Pawpaw is related to soursop and cherimoya, being a member of the custard apple family.
Although Pawpaw trees are native to the United States, many varieties have also been cultivated by arboriculturist’s to improve the tree’s qualities.
The tree is relatively small, reaching only 20 feet in height. It is deciduous, losing its leaves during fall and growing new leaves each spring.
The deep red-brown flowers have an unpleasant smell attracting flies and other insects. For the fruit to set, it requires cross-pollination from different trees.
Fruits start to appear during early summer and ripen between late August and October, according to variety.
The fruit of the Pawpaw tree is green, with some varieties turning to a greeny-yellow when ripe. It has an elliptical shape and grows in clusters, a bit like bunches of bananas. In fact, it is sometimes referred to as the “wild banana,” “West Virginia banana,” “Hoosier banana,” or “hipster banana,” among many other nicknames.
Native Americans have long enjoyed the delights of Pawpaw fruit. More recently, it has gained the interest of researchers due to its high nutritional value and anti-disease and insecticidal properties.
Where Can You Find Pawpaw Trees?
Trees can be found in much of the eastern United States, stretching from southern Ontario to northern Florida and as far west as eastern Nebraska. In all, they are indigenous to 26 states.
You can purchase young Pawpaw trees and seeds from online retailers, and you may also find the trees available at some plant nurseries and garden centers.
Where do Pawpaw trees Grow Naturally?
To find a Pawpaw tree, you’ll probably have to go for a walk in the woods. They are understory trees growing below the main canopy and like to inhabit hardwood forests with fertile soils.
Young trees are particularly sunlight sensitive and prefer shade, while larger trees need more light. They can often be found on the periphery of forests or in areas with gaps in the forest floor, allowing more sunlight to penetrate the canopy.
The trees prefer a slightly acidic, well-drained soil and can often be found close to streams or river beds.
Pawpaw trees are very disease and insect-resistant in comparison to other fruit tree species. This makes them of particular interest to organic farmers as they are not plagued with the same challenges of not using pesticides.
How to Identify a Pawpaw Tree?
Identifying a Pawpaw tree is relatively simple; if you know what to look for, let’s take a closer look.
The leaves are oblong, narrow at the base, then broadening towards the tip before coming to a point at the end. They droop in a downward direction, giving a tree in full leaf a very distinctive appearance.
The leaves are between 5 and 11 inches in length and 2 to 3 inches in width. They are a rich green color through spring and summer, turning yellow in fall. If crushed, they smell of green pepper.
The Pawpaw flowers appear in spring and contain both male and female reproductive organs that mature at different times to avoid self-pollination. Because each flower has several ovaries, it can produce more than one fruit.
The color of the flowers varies and can be a deep red-brown to purplish-brown. They have a broad bell shape and are one to one and a half inches wide with six petals.
Flies and beetles are the primary pollinators of the flowers, which have a rancid meat fragrance to attract them.
In shape, the fruit resembles small green mangos. They are often seen in clusters and look a little like short, dumpy bananas.
In some varieties, the fruits stay green even when ripe, while in others, they take on a yellow-green color as they ripen.
The fruit has a pleasant sweet smell, although it seems that taste varies and appears to be better in locations with warmer summer climates.
Squirrels, birds, and other small animals enjoy feeding off the fruits and, in doing so, disperse the seeds helping to grow new colonies of Pawpaw tree. Humans should avoid eating the seeds, however, as they can cause digestive upset.
When the fruits are fully ripe, they have a soft custardy flesh inside the skin and a taste similar to a mixture of banana, pineapple, and mango.
Pawpaw Tree Bark
The bark of the Pawpaw tree is brown and smooth with wart-like splotches called lenticels. These appear as pale gray patches.
The Lenticels help with the gas exchange between the internal tissues of the tree and the outside atmosphere. This allows for various metabolic processes, including respiration.
There is a natural insecticide in Pawpaw tree bark that helps protect it against insect pests.
The branches and twigs of the Pawpaw start growing near the base and spread out up the tree’s trunk. They point upward, reaching for sunlight in more shaded locations, but where they can reach greater light exposure, the shape is more open, with branches reaching outwards and drooping down when in full leaf.
Twigs are a red-brown color and have brown-purple buds in early spring. The tree’s limbs are quite flexible and break-resistant.
In this video, you can see how to find and identify a Pawpaw tree and its fruit as well as some other foraging edibles:
Are Pawpaw Trees Rare?
Pawpaw trees aren’t rare, but they are not as prevalent as many other tree species due to the very specific growing conditions they require to thrive.
There has been an increase in the number of Pawpaw in some locations, which is being driven, in part, by the browsing habits of deer.
Deer don’t like Pawpaw and will leave young saplings alone, preferring instead to eat many of the other species, including red maple, oak, spicebush, and black gum. This benefits the Pawpaw, as the deer are suppressing the growth of these other tree species making more room for the Pawpaw to spread themselves.
Fires are more prevalent in pine forests as opposed to deciduous ones. This means that because Pawpaw tends to only grow in deciduous forests and is not resistant to fire, that they benefit from the lower frequency of fire outbreaks.
How To Grow A Pawpaw Tree?
To grow Pawpaw successfully, you’ll need to grow them in a group containing two or more cultivars.
Young trees can be purchased ready to plant, or you may also grow them from seed collected from the fruit of wild trees or found at a store. Taking wild saplings is almost always unsuccessful, as they are often clones of the mother tree spread via underground runners.
The roots of young saplings are also very fragile, and if damaged during transplantation, the tree will not survive.
Pawpaw needs well-drained, fertile, slightly acidic soil to thrive. Young trees must receive a regular supply of water, particularly in their first few years, until well established with deep taproots.
If you want to have a tree with a single stem, simply remove all the side shoots that sprout in spring over the first few years. If you’d rather make a Pawpaw hedge, you can leave the side shoots you want and train the tree to bush out.
When growing trees from seed, it can take up to eight years until you see any fruit. With grafted trees, it can take as little as three or four years until the first fruit appears.
To successfully grow Pawpaw from wild seeds, you will need to remove them from the fruit, clean them off, and put them into a cold, moist place for between 90 and 120 days. It’s important not to let the seeds dry out during this time.
How to Eat Pawpaw?
There is no doubt that the best way of enjoying a Pawpaw is picked fresh off the tree when perfectly ripe. Simply cut in half, remove the seeds and spoon out the delicious custardy middle.
If you’d like to be a little more adventurous, you could try something different such as adding it to smoothies or cocktails, or putting it in baked goods or oatmeal.
There are recipes for Pawpaw bread, fruit leather, and ice cream, along with much more, all available with a quick search online.
This often-overlooked fruit is exotic, tasty, nutritious, and well worth discovering. However, don’t expect to find it in your local grocery store, as the fruit is too delicate with a short shelf life.
You may see Pawpaw at farmers’ markets or specialist organic shops during the season, but it is always more fun to go exploring and discover some growing wild.