The next time you see a pawpaw, dig in.
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Paw-Paw
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 in 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.

About Pawpaw Trees

Sometimes called an Indian Banana, 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 ginkgo hues), and then their brown, velvety flower buds open to deep burgundy flowers from March to May. Pawpaw trees can grow about 30-feet tall, and their oval-shaped fruits are about 35-inches long, starting yellowish-green and ripening to brown.

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.

How to Grow Pawpaws

Soil

The soil around the pawpaw should be slightly acidic (pH balance of 5.5- to 7), well-draining, and fertile for best growth and fruit production. Adding compost to the soil can help with the soil's quality and overall health. 

Water

Younger pawpaw trees will require more frequent watering. Just make sure not to overwater your tree, as this can cause issues. Just make sure the soil surrounding the base remains moist. Mature trees that have access to regular rainwater, or are near a water source, shouldn't require much additional watering. However, if planted in an orchard, some additional watering might be helpful for the trees to prevent overdrying of the soil.

Light

Young and growing pawpaw trees prosper in partial shade, as too much direct sunlight can scorch their leaves, and cause fruit production to slow or even stop. However, once the tree has matured, full sun is the best way to go. Interestingly enough, depending on what type of light the tree is exposed to its shape will change. Trees that grow in direct sun will have a more pyramidical shape, whereas those in more shady areas will spread out, or have a more round shape, and not grow as many lower limbs. 

Other Care Methods

The pawpaw tree is hardy to USDA Zone 5 and can handle cold temperatures up to -20 degrees Fahrenheit. The tree does best in a climate with hot and humid summers. It is recommended to fertilize your pawpaw trees biannually with a well-balanced fertilizer or add compost or organic matter to your soil. These trees are pest-resistant but are not bulletproof. Some protection from the wind might be helpful in retaining its large leaves. You can grow pawpaw in a container garden, though you'll need a deep vessel because the tree has a vast root system that needs plenty of space to grow.

Getting Your Tree

There are many different types of pawpaw trees you may choose from. Selections include 'Allegheny', 'Mango', 'Mitchell', 'Potomac', 'Prolific', 'Rappahannock', 'Shenandoah', 'Sunflower', 'Taylor', and 'Wabash'. When ordering your pawpaws, be sure to plant two or more selections to ensure cross-pollination of the different pawpaw trees. If you place an order online, 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. You may also check with local garden centers to see if they have any at their store.