The next time you see a paw-paw, dig in.

Credit: Southern Living

Pawpaw, paw-paw, or paw paw? It doesn't much matter how you spell it, it's an easy tree to grow and a tasty fruit to eat. Pawpaws are the largest edible fruit trees native to North America, specifically the temperate climes of the eastern parts of the United States, though you won't often find them near the coasts. Pawpaw, paw-paw, and paw paw are all accepted spellings, while the scientifically minded among us know the pawpaw tree as Asimina triloba, a species in the plant family Annonaceae.

The pawpaw tree is a favorite of gardeners across the Southeast because of its dark green foliage, tropical appearance, and abundant fruit. Their tropical characteristics make them seem like they would be happier closer to the equator, but pawpaw trees thrive in the South's temperate climates and deciduous forests. They can be a source of seasonal color, because the leaves turn bright yellow in autumn (think fall gingko hues) and then their brown, velvety flower buds open to deep burgundy flowers from March to May.

Pawpaw trees produce large, edible, green fruits, also called pawpaws. The fruit is fragrant and has a distinctly bright, tropical flavor. If you encounter freshly ripe pawpaws, go ahead and dig in. One bite, and you'll be enjoying one of America's best-kept-secret fruits. (Just be sure to spit out any seeds.) You'll know they're ripe when the fruits are close to falling off the tree. The flesh will be soft with a slight give, like many stone fruits or tropical fruits. The pawpaws' short shelf life means you should take them when you can get them, though they will last a little longer when refrigerated. Eat them out of your hand, or puree them and add them to a smoothie, ice cream, or pie.

You can grow a pawpaw in a container, though you'll need a deep vessel because the tree has a vast root system that needs plenty of space to grow. Pawpaw trees don't require much attention or specialized planting. They're pest-resistant, and they thrive in well-drained soil with an equal balance of sun and shade. You can order your own pawpaw trees for planting right now from Just Fruits and Exotics or from Walmart, just be sure to plant two or more selections to ensure cross-pollination of the paw-paw species. Selections include 'Allegheny', 'Mango', 'Mitchell', 'Potomac', 'Prolific', 'Rappahannock', 'Shenandoah', 'Sunflower', 'Taylor', and 'Wabash'.

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If you place an order, note that pawpaw means "papaya" in other parts of the world, so make sure you're getting the right tree—if not, you may be cooking with papayas instead of pawpaws come harvest time.