The Pawpaw: A Southern Delicacy

Reader Contribution by Allan Douglas
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I have, on several occasions, heard of a mysterious fruit called a pawpaw. On each occasion it was referred to as a Southern delicacy: a fruit tree whose papaya-shaped fruit have the consistency of custard inside a tough, thin-skinned pod and a vanilla-banana flavor.

Benny LaFleur holds two pawpaw fruit from his Del Rio farm.

One of my gardening mentors, Benny La Fleur, recently provided me with a pawpaw fruit to try. He grows them on his farm, along with many other wonderful things. As I had heard, it looks tropical: a greenish-yellow pod about 5 inches long with brown flecks. When cut open I found a soft fruit containing many large (an inch or more in length), brown, bean-like seeds. To me, the fruit tasted much like a banana crème pie, and was a welcome complement to our breakfast.

Curious, I decided to poke around and see what more I could learn about this strange tropical fruit.

First off, the pawpaw is not tropical, nor is it limited to the south. It is distantly related to the Cherimoya (Annona cherimola), which is an important food crop in Indonesia, but the pawpaw has been a native fruit tree of North America since long before the white man came here. Lewis and Clark wrote in their journals that they were quite fond of the pawpaw. At one point during their expedition in 1806, they relied on pawpaws when other provisions ran low.

To further confuse the issue, in Australia the papaya is commonly referred to as the pawpaw, but the two fruits are entirely different.

It is late in the season, and windy, rainy weather has knocked all the fruit from this pawpaw tree on Benny’s farm. Photo by Sara Shea.

These trees are native to eastern North America from Florida to southernmost Canada and from New York to East Texas and Nebraska. While some have been successfully grown in California, they are not native to that area, partly because they do require a minimum of 400 hours of winter chill in order to produce fruit.

The pawpaw is now rarely seen and hardly known by recent generations, but was a household name for the pre-baby-boomer generations. Many old and now forgotten folk songs were sung praising the pawpaw. Being the largest edible fruit native to America, the pawpaw is worth singing about and has found some resurgent interest in the past 20 years.

Backwoodsmen and hikers occasionally find wild pawpaw patches and treasure the fruit, but because they are available only for a short time each fall, finding them means a fortuitous occasion or a planned outing.

The pawpaw has only recently been commercialized. That’s one reason you don’t see them in grocery stores. So far, there are just a few orchards selling to farmers’ markets and through websites. So a pawpaw fruit may be hard to find these days … unless you have a friend, like Benny, who grows them.

One reason for the scarcity of the pawpaw tree now is that it is a challenge to get started. For the first two years the tree requires filtered sunlight. Once it matures, it needs full sun. It will grow to a height between 12 and 20 feet. Needless to say, these trees grow best in “patches” where mature trees shelter seedlings until they mature and replace deceased trees.

The pawpaw needs a potassium-rich fertilizer to set a good crop of fruit (Benny uses composted chicken manure). It is a deciduous tree, and the points where the previous seasons leaves attached become the flowering point next season. The fruit grow in clumps like coconuts.

Pawpaw cluster. Photo courtesy England’s Orchard and Nursery.

Benny says it’s one of the few fruit trees whose flowers change sex as they mature (dichogamous). The flowers last only a few days and open in two stages: first as female flowers for approximately 36 hours, then as male flowers. The flower has a declining receptivity to pollen during the female stage so is unlikely to be pollinated by its own pollen as it enters the male stage. Due to the low bee count lately, Benny has been out hand-pollinating his trees to get them to set fruit: the short life stage of the flower means timing is important as well.

A dichogamous Pawpaw flower. Photo courtesy England’s Orchard and Nursery.

To propagate the pawpaw tree, save the seed in a zippered plastic bag full of moist peat moss and put it in the refrigerator. They need 90 to 120 days of 35 to 40-degree temperatures before they become viable.

Under ideal greenhouse conditions, germination of the seed can be expected in about seven weeks. When it sprouts, the seed sends up a slender shoot without cotyledons. But before the shoot emerges, the seed will have sent down a 10-inch long tap root!

Pawpaw saplings: some trees that Benny LaFleur has grafted and grown on his farm in Del Rio, Tennessee. Benny is a wealth of knowledge and information about pawpaw trees, as well as many other varieties of fruit trees. Photo by Sara Shea.

Young pawpaw plants have fleshy, brittle roots with few fine root hairs, making them difficult to transplant. It is important to follow these helpful rules:

  • Use seedlings, not root suckers.

  • Move the tree with roots and soil intact. A container-grown specimen is best.

  • Transplant the tree in the spring after bud break.

  • Give the plant good drainage and keep it well watered the first year.

Thanks to Benny, I have a zippered sandwich bag of peat moss and pawpaw seeds in my fridge. I’ll plant them in large containers next spring. If these survive their first year, I’ll transplant them the following year and create my own pawpaw patch.

Now; how does that song go again?


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