My Notes on Pawpaws

Ted Ruegsegger

Revised 27 July 2018

The pawpaw is the largest edible fruit native to the United States. Searching the web for "pawpaw" finds all kinds of articles and pictures (it'll also find you lots of references to papaya, an entirely different fruit which some people call pawpaw). Instead of duplicating all that, I'll list my own observations and notes.

How do they taste?

They have a taste all their own—the closest description, and the one you'll read on most websites, is that they're a cross between a banana and a mango. On the one hand, that's completely wrong: eating one doesn't remind you of bananas or mangoes. On the other, it's right in spirit, conveying a sense of rich, creamy texture and sweet, fruity flavor. Another description I've heard is banana and pear.

Also, their flavor varies over time. When they're first ripe enough to eat, the flesh is light greenish-yellow and more banana-like in flavor. As they get more ripe, the yellow color deepens and that "banana-mango" flavor predominates. Finally they get a very deep brownish-yellow and taste like caramel (in the sense of flan, aka crème caramel). Hard to say which I like best but I guess I lean toward the caramel end.

Once in a while you'll get one that tastes bland or even soapy. Don't write pawpaws off; you just got a bad one—spit it out and grab another.

Fresh pawpaw flesh

Why don't supermarkets carry them?

Too perishable. Perhaps they might someday carry frozen pawpaw pulp, which is delicious.

Where do you find them?

If you're lucky enough to live in a region that has pawpaw orchards, by all means pay them a visit. When I started my quest some decades ago, such places were difficult to find, but now that every farm has a web site, a search will quickly show you the ones nearest you. These days, you may even find pawpaw fruit at farmers' markets.

Failing that, you must look for wild pawpaws. Tricky. In theory, they grow all over the US, east of the Mississippi, but you have to know where to look. Once you've seen a pawpaw tree or, better yet, a pawpaw patch, you'll get better at spotting them.

Cluster of pawpaws in tree

I stumbled on my first wild pawpaws by accident. I knew what the fruits looked like since I'd mail-ordered them for years, so when I saw one lying on a walking path I recognized it. "That's a pawpaw!" I looked around and saw a tree with glossy, tropical-looking leaves just like the pictures: "That's a pawpaw tree!" Then the surrounding trees came into focus: "It's a whole pawpaw forest!" Sure enough, for almost a mile along both banks of a creek in Chantilly, Virginia, the dominant tree was the pawpaw. We came back and easily filled half a dozen supermarket bags with fruit. Every year for almost a month the fruit were there for the collecting—no one else seemed to know or care. I miss the Enchanted Pawpaw Forest. It was the ideal environment in terms of soil, water and drainage. What's more, a symbiotic insect population had arisen that ensured an exceptionally high pollination rate, so the trees bore fruit like mad. A thorough spraying with insect repellent was a small price for such abundance.

Mail-order them? Whence?

Integration Acres will ship you particularly tasty Ohio fruit in season (late August through early October) as well as frozen pawpaw pulp and other delicacies.

How can I be sure it's a pawpaw tree?

Obviously it's no problem if there are flowers or fruit. But a few trees look similar, especially as small seedlings. The leaves alternate along the stems and have a characteristic shape, widest just before their outline reverses its curve and comes to a point. They have no sawteeth along the edges (those are beeches). In the fall, pawpaw foliage turns a paler green while everything around it is still dark green, after which it turns a pale yellow; this makes pawpaw patches readily visible from afar.

If you're still in doubt, crush a bit of a leaf and smell it; if it's a pawpaw, it will have a "gasoline-like" smell (it's about as close to gasoline as the fruit flavor is to a banana, but it's distinctive, an unmistakeable petroleum-distillate odor. Others describe it as a "green bell pepper" smell, and I have to admit that's equally plausible). Another plant, Lindera benzoin aka northern spicebush or Appalachian allspice, resembles a pawpaw as a seedling and also has that smell plus a sweet, fruity smell like citronella. If you find spicebush, there's a good chance pawpaws are growing nearby, at least in the South. If you find them in the North, plant some pawpaws!

How do I harvest wild pawpaws?

They fall to the ground: pick them up, after checking that bugs haven't got to them first. Gently feel (don't squeeze—they bruise easily) any hanging fruit within reach—if they're hard, leave them to ripen a few more days. To get ripe fruit not in reach, give the tree a gentle shake, then pick up the fruits that drop. Don't shake too hard or unripe fruit will drop. Take them home anyway—they'll ripen on the kitchen counter, not as well as on the tree but still delicious.

When they drop, some will bruise and some will split open. Don't be squeamish—they taste just as good and the unbroken ones won't keep much longer anyway.

I use plastic grocery bags to collect them in the wild; don't fill them more than halfway or the ones on the bottom will be completely squashed. Three bags in each hand is my limit; even then I leave full bags next to landmarks to pick up on my return. Carry spare bags since you'll tear some on thornbushes or other undergrowth.

When you get them home, rinse them off in the sink and lay them out on towels to air dry. From the ones that are split or squashed I go ahead and scoop the flesh into a container and put it in the refrigerator. And it goes without saying that the person who does the washing and sorting gets to eat all he wants!

a tasty harvest

How do I eat them?

Photos usually show them cut in half lengthwise, displaying the rows of seeds. That's certainly a nice presentation but it's a tedious chore poking a knife between all the seeds until you can pry it apart. Perhaps for company, each half placed on a dessert plate with a spoon.

I cut them in half at right angles to the long axis. In fact, the skin is so tender you can nick it with a fingernail and pull it apart. At that point you can scoop the pulp out with a spoon; that's the best way to get every last bit. Outdoors, say while harvesting wild pawpaws, you'll probably just squeeze the contents of each half into your mouth.

with a spoon

Pawpaw recipes abound, for example, two very promising ones in this NPR article. I have a pawpaw pie recipe of my own that I'm slowly improving. Note that, unlike bananas, which are best for baking when very much overripe, pawpaws peak at the deep-yellow caramel stage and then get pale tan and flavorless. So if you want to bake with them, you have to give up eating some fresh.

Wild pawpaws are delicious! Does it get any better than this?

Yes, as a matter of fact! I can find something to like in just about any pawpaw, but when I finally had some of those named cultivars I got what the fuss is about. After I moved north, away from the Enchanted Pawpaw Forest, I resumed ordering fruit from Integration Acres and noticed a dramatic change in the quality. Whereas they used to pick and ship wild-growing fruit, their orchards are now grown and bearing. It's not practical to label every fruit they ship, but it's very clear that the selected varieties are superior to most wild fruit.

I had for years heard and read of the work of Neal Peterson who bred especially great, named varieties of pawpaw. If you don't already know all about this icon of the pawpaw world, take a moment to browse his website, which includes a link to NPR's excellent introduction to pawpaws by Allison Aubrey. Thanks to Abbie White, who has a pawpaw grove at Whitesfields Farm in Hardwick, Massachusetts and sells the fruit at the Hardwick Farmers' Market, I had my first taste of Peterson's Shenandoah and Susquehanna varieties. Mouth-watering, deeply satisfying, with a bonus that there's much more flesh and fewer seeds.

Can I grow my own?

You can and you should. If you want named cultivars (and you do), you must buy grafted trees. In that case, unless you have a wild pawpaw population nearby, be sure to plant more than one variety since, like apples, pawpaws usually can't pollinate themselves or close relatives. After years of starting my own seedlings and planting them around my property, I now have four Peterson trees happily growing in my yard. Besides guaranteeing excellent fruit, these grafted trees give me about three years' head start compared to seedlings.

Peterson Shenandoah pawpaw tree from One Green World

A few years back I purchased a seedling tree from Tripple Brook Farm. The tree, already growing in the ground at the farm, moved to my yard with no apparent transplant shock and appears to be thriving, giving the lie to the widespread belief that transplanting a pawpaw is sure death. But beware, that belief is well-founded: the reason the transplant worked is that the Tripple Brook Farm folks have special equipment to extract and secure the root ball without damaging the fragile taproot and root hairs.

Young pawpaw tree from Tripple Brook Farm ready for transplanting, August 2009

That tree grew from less than three feet to over eleven, flowering at last in the spring of 2014, then grew to over fifteen feet before top-pruning.

Pawpaw tree from Tripple Brook Farm 15½ feet tall, July 2016

Share the bounty?

I have undertaken to restore the pawpaw to as much of New England (well, at least central Massachusetts and nearby Connecticut) as I can. It's still not clear to me where pawpaws originally grew. Maps abound purporting to depict the "native range" of the tree. If some of them are to be believed, pawpaw trees somehow knew about—and wouldn't cross—certain state boundaries, thousands of years before there were any United States! I understand that "native" means "without human involvement", but since the native Americans (I can't help nitpicking that, since our species originated in Africa, they must not be "native" either) loved pawpaws and spread them everywhere they went, how does anyone really know where the pawpaws grew before that happened? Since pawpaws clearly grow and bear fruit in at least the western part of Massachusetts, could they have been here in the past? Recall that the New England settlers cleared most of the original forests for farmland; only since the mid-19th century have the forests returned. Since pawpaws favor riverbanks and other areas with a reliable water supply, also known as fertile bottomland, they were likely wiped out by farmers wanting this valuable terrain. Many conifers and hardwoods came back on their own, perhaps spreading from adjacent intact habitats; evidently pawpaws lacked that advantage. Perhaps, given a few more centuries, they would have made it back themselves, but for now, enthusiasts like me will give them a little help.

So far, almost sixty little pawpaw patches have sprouted where I planted seeds, mostly just by sticking them in the ground. There's now even a pawpaw patch on Mt. Tom!

Pawpaw seedlings on Mt. Tom, not quite two years after planting seeds

Update, September 2016: I finally made it back, four years later, to see my pawpaw seedlings on Mt. Tom, along the M&M trail. Yikes! I didn't recognize the site at first, devastated by the vicissitudes of weather, in particular the October 8, 2014 microburst. After a long search, I found one 7-in seedling (confirmed as a pawpaw by the smell of a torn leaf) and possibly two smaller ones (unconfirmed, since they didn't look like they could spare any leaf) peeking out from under a pile of downed trees. Why still so small? My theory is that the top growth was crushed in the general wreckage and the rootstocks had to start over with fresh shoots. In any case, they'll grow slowly in this overly shady spot, and this summer's drought probably didn't help either. But they're alive!

One pawpaw seedling and possibly two smaller ones, still alive after four years and the October 8, 2014 microburst, 15 September 2016

If you live in a region lacking abundant pawpaw patches, I encourage you to plant seeds in likely places.

You can buy seeds a lot more cheaply than seedlings (well, if you count your own time and labor as free). If you already have some tasty fruit, by all means save the seeds, being very careful not to let them dry out, and grow them.

How do I sprout seeds?

Pawpaw seedlings in the wild

As your web search has told you, they need a few months of cold, must not dry out, and are slow to germinate. Once they germinate, the long taproot and the root hairs are so fragile that damaging them will kill the seedling.

In the past I've stratified seeds in the refrigerator over the winter and then started them in shallow flats with transparent bottoms so I could spot each sprouting seed and move it either to its final bed (in warm weather) or into a tall pot (when it's cold outside). This is tricky and tedious.

I'm now convinced that by far the best way to propagate pawpaws from seed is to plant the seeds directly in the ground where I want the trees to grow. For fresh seeds, this means in the fall when I get them from fresh fruit. They'll stratify over the winter and then sprout the following summer. Leftover seeds can go in the refrigerator and get planted the next spring. After revisiting the places I've planted seeds in the wild, I find the germination rate for seeds popped into the ground is surprisingly high, at least here in central Massachusetts.

80% germination from three clusters of five seeds

Where's the best place to plant them?

My observations of wild pawpaws in Virginia suggest that water is the key. The Enchanted Pawpaw Forest was apparently ideal. The creek (stream, run, branch, lick, Southerners have a zillion names for flowing water while New England has just rivers and brooks) was large (the bed was 30 to 50 feet across and about six feet deep but I rarely saw it anywhere near full, so that must have been erosion from storm runoff) and never went completely dry, even in the worst summer drought. The banks were 4 to 5 feet above the water level, wide and flat. Pawpaws supposedly need good drainage but these flats would have standing water for several days after a hard rain and mud for a few days more. Of course, that whole region seems to be mostly red clay so "good drainage" is relative.

Pawpaws in nearby forests looked healthy and flowered abundantly in the spring but bore little or no fruit. I'm all but certain that was because they just ran out of water during the dry summer, at least during the few years I noticed they were there, when we had steadily worsening annual droughts.

Find a place that won't dry out in the summer, like a stream bank or the area adjacent to a pond or wetland, and place several seeds (preferably from different trees, for cross-pollination) in the ground, an inch or so deep. Use photos, GPS coordinates or detailed descriptions and measurements to be sure you can locate the seedlings the next summer or fall amid everything else that will sprout in the same area. Bear in mind that you won't see any topgrowth until a few weeks after germination, since the taproot grows about a foot during that time. Or else just wait a few years until the sprouts are big enough to notice easily; it seems to me that young seedlings grow about six inches per year, more later on. If possible, try to keep the immediate vicinity clear of weeds, because they raise the humidity and can encourage fungus on young seedlings.

Some sources say shade is important for young trees. That may be true for rows of little trees in a sun-drenched orchard but I've noticed that trees planted in the shade grow way more slowly than those with at least partial sun (one of mine had barely reached a foot after five years), and those with full sun don't seem to suffer, at least not here in the North. In any case, when it's time to bear fruit, sun is good.

An excellent modern reference is the KYSU Pawpaw Planting Guide.

What about pollination?

Pawpaws don't attract honey bees, depending instead on less efficient native pollinators like flies and various bugs. Self-sufficient ecosystems like the Enchanted Pawpaw Forest manage to set up their own pollinator populations—I don't know which of the insects did the actual pollinating but the place was a haven for chiggers, biting flies and gnats that kept flying into your eyes. Nothing DEET couldn't handle but not what you'd want in your yard.

What the pros do is use a fine paintbrush to pollinate them by hand, going from tree to tree to ensure the required cross-pollination. Note that pawpaws are extremely fertile, perhaps to compensate for scarce pollinators, so the yield will be well worth the extra trouble. Apios Institute's Pawpaw page includes an excellent description of this process, with beautiful photos that clarify the critical timing issues. When my first tree finally bloomed, that's what I did.

Maintenance?

Deer don't eat pawpaw seedlings, bark or foliage; nor do goats. This gives pawpaw trees an advantage in the woods and on farms. A correspondent cautions me that, when the deer need to rub their antlers on trees, pawpaws are as susceptible as any, so protect the young ones.

Almost nothing bothers pawpaw trees. Where pawpaws are plentiful, the larvae of the Zebra Swallowtail butterfly feed on the leaves, but not enough to do the trees any harm (probably this makes them toxic or bad-tasting to predators, like monarch butterflies with milkweed). I have noticed Japanese beetles and gypsy moth larvae nibbling some holes in some of the leaves, but they give up quickly, too. This tree has fantastic defenses!

All you really need to do is:

Abbie White's trees have trunks as thick as my leg. Trees like that would be thirty or forty feet tall in the wild, but hers are ten to twelve feet, tops, with sturdy branches and fruit within reach.

If a tree bears unsatisfactory fruit, leave it in place as a rootstock and graft a better one onto it! I read this somewhere and realized by hindsight it was obvious, but a great idea just the same. Since I've planted lots and lots of seeds of unknown quality, I guess I'm going to have to learn how to graft! Bear in mind that pawpaw patches spread by suckers from the roots, and these will be from the rootstock.

A reliable source?

A recognized authority on all things relating to pawpaws I most certainly am not! But I've learned some things, unlearned some widespread but wrong notions, and gradually come to a level of understanding I wish I had long ago. So I'm sharing.

A few decades I ago I kept reading about pawpaws and vowed that I would taste one before I died. At the time, the only way to get any (in New England) was to grow a tree, and I made several failed attempts. When we moved to Virginia I started some seeds, got one to sprout and planted it in the yard, whereupon I finally saw my first pawpaw tree. Long before it was big enough to bear, we moved.

Then came the World Wide Web and Integration Acres and I finally got to taste a pawpaw. In early September 2005, many mail-ordered pawpaws later, I passed by our old house and saw that my pawpaw tree had fruit! That was the first and, for almost a decade, only fruit from a tree I planted. Alas, the new owners had no interest in pawpaws and cut the tree down soon after.

fruit on my first pawpaw tree, but no longer mine

A month later I discovered the Enchanted Pawpaw Forest and my pawpaw education took off. When we returned to New England I wrote up what I'd learned, put it on the web, and was amazed at the response I got. Many readers turned out to be Virginia neighbors I'd never met (but whom I hope to meet on my next visit). As my "Johnny Pawpawseed" activities gained momentum, more and more responses came from New Englanders with similar interests.

So here I am, a lover of the fruit and the tree, a passionate advocate for restoring both to their rightful place. My last yard had sixteen pawpaw plantings, some grafted, some seedlings. I've helped friends and neighbors establish their own trees. In the wilds of central and western Massachusetts I've planted seeds in about 150 places so far, of which almost sixty have sprouted into seedlings.

Fruit at last!

In the spring of 2014, I noticed something new on my largest tree: little fuzzy bumps on some of the branches. Yup, flower buds! After what seemed like an aeon, they became actual flowers.

flower buds, 25 March emerging flowers, 19 May

As soon as my flowers started ripening, I was off to Whitesfields Farm with a fine paintbrush to collect pollen from Abbie's pawpaws.

pawpaw flower with pollen and a fly, 30 May

After several days of careful hand-pollination, I started to see changes in the flowers, as the ovaries swelled and the petals fell; within a week I started seeing baby fruits. More and more appeared, and soon I had a cluster of six tiny fruits, a couple of clusters of four, some threes, and some twos and singles, over twenty baby fruits in all, barely more than half an inch long.

cluster of six baby fruits, 14 June

I didn't know it then, but that was pretty much the high point. After a while there seemed to be fewer fruits, but since the leaves were now filling out I thought perhaps they were just harder to locate. Then I saw a couple of my precious babies on the ground! Birds? Squirrels? No, just my continuing education about pawpaws: a phenomenon called fruit drop. If the tree has set more fruit than it can bring to maturity, it will shed the excess to accommodate its resources. My tree, although it was now ten feet tall, was still only three inches across at the base of the trunk. It's probably more complicated than that, taking into account the available water, sunlight, and soil fertility. By July only a single fruit remained. Fortunately for my sanity, that pawpaw did survive until it finally fell from the tree at the end of October. Even so, it hadn't fully ripened, so I guess the tree knew what it was doing—instead of twenty immature fruits, it made one with viable seeds. I let it ripen on the counter for a week; it was edible, but surely I could expect better as the tree matured.

the one remaining pawpaw, 22 October

On the other hand, I can finally say I've eaten fruit from my own pawpaw tree!

5.5oz pawpaw fruit, just fallen from the tree

Two Years Later

Now it was 2016 and the trees were maturing surprisingly quickly. In the spring I was pleased to see sixteen baby fruits on my trees, plus two on my neighbors', but gloomily expected them to drop any day. Instead, they all survived. They swelled to the size of hen's eggs and then stayed that size for much of the summer, probably owing to the drought despite my watering them from time to time, but as fall approached they started swelling.

The champ was a seedling from a Sunflower, which had grown to 10½ feet and had nine fruits, including a cluster of four.

But my grafted Shenandoah, shown above but now 7½ feet tall, was living up to its reputation as a heavy bearer (and early–it was barely taller than I was!) with a quad and a pair, and those are noticeably larger than the others.

quad pawpaws on Shenandoah getting larger

Another change was gradually making itself known: what was just a yard with a few pawpaw trees planted in and around it was now taking on the appearance of a pawpaw orchard.

my growing pawpaw orchard: Allegheny (small, yellowish), Sunflower seedling (tall), random small, Shenandoah seedling (tall), Shenandoah in front of it, Potomac in foreground

2017: My Last Hurrah

This was the year my trees came into their own. Forty beautiful and delicious fruits, half of them from my young Shenandoah, six more from the newly-bearing Potomac. And all this while a gypsy-moth plague stripped most other trees. At this rate, I'd guess next year's harvest will need to be weighed instead of counted!

almost-ripe fruits, blown down by a windstorm

Sadly, this was also the year we sold the house and moved. The new owners know and appreciate pawpaws, so the effort didn't go to waste.

And a Fresh Start

No, not wasted at all. With my lessons learned, I started over at the new house. I read that grafted trees in pots can be planted in the fall, so I ordered eight named varieties right away. I planted them in my new yard, not without trepidation, since the young trees looked so thin and fragile and, as fall turns to winter, the winds blow hard and cold. Would the graft unions survive until spring?

the initial shipment of eight pawpaw trees now planted, shortly before frost

Spring 2018

I watched gloomily as the winter frosts and storms raged over my tiny trees and turned their beds to pools of ice, steeling myself to start over in spring. To my astonished delight, all but one shrugged it off, leafing out vigorously. In May, the replacement and seven more trees arrived. I should take a moment here to praise One Green World for their fantastic packaging. The eight trees were underway with UPS for almost a week, and arrived in perfect condition, each pot snugly wrapped in plastic and braced against the opposite end of the box with a bamboo stake, so everything stayed put no matter how the box was rotated or bounced around.

So now I have fifteen pawpaw trees including, at last, all six Peterson varieties. With any luck at all, I'll have my first fruits in five or six years. Only after they were all planted did another thought occur to me: What about in ten years, when I have hundreds of pounds of fruit? Farmers' Market? Local food bank? Plus I'll get to try out all those pawpaw recipes for which I've never had enough fruit before.

Contacting the Author


Theodore B. Ruegsegger [FSF Associate Member]