Pawpaw Trees: “Tropical” Fruit in Temperate Climates

No, they aren’t papayas, but if you live in a temperate region and love tropical fruit, you should try growing pawpaw trees! Read on to discover how these North American native trees are the ideal “tropical” fruit for temperate climates.


Pawpaw Trees: “Tropical” Fruit in Temperate Climates

Quick Facts About the Pawpaw

Pawpaw fruit. Source: Scott Bauer, USDA
Common NamePawpaw
Scientific NameAsimina triloba
Hardiness ZonesZones 5 to 8
LightFull Sun to Full Shade. Survives under full shade and produces fruit in partial shade. Fruit production increases with more sun.
WaterBest in moist, well-drained soils. Should not be planted in very wet or very dry soils.
SoilPrefers rich, deep, loamy soils with high organic matter content. pH from 6.0 to 7.0
SizeHeight: 20-35 feet, Width: 20-35 feet
Forest Garden Layer Low Tree Layer, Shrub Layer
Edible UsesFruit
Other UsesFiber crop for rope, nets, etc. Leaves, twigs, and bark can be used to make organic insecticide.
Ecosystem ServicesAnimal shelter, coppice species
PestsMinimal pest pressure. Primary issues from pawpaw peduncle borer, asimina webworm moth.
DiseasesMinimal disease pressure. Primary issues from leafspot, fruit spot, black fungus rot, phytophtora root rot

What is a Pawpaw?

Asimina triloba, better known as the pawpaw, is a small deciduous tree native to the Eastern United States and Canada – growing from Louisiana to Ontario and from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean. Asimina is the only genus of the Annonaceae, or custard apple, family which grows in temperate climates, with the triloba species occupying the northernmost range. Related to tropical fruits like the cherimoya, custard-apple, and ylang-ylang, the pawpaw makes growing “tropical” fruit accessible to regions as cold as Zone 5!

Pawpaw trees stay relatively small, growing to about 30 feet tall, and are a common understory tree in many eastern North American forests under canopies of black walnut, pecan, or oak. Trees are highly shade tolerant, making them ideal understory trees, but will fruit best when in full sun.

Pawpaws grow in a distinctive cone shape, with large, dark green, oval leaves that dangle towards the ground. Pawpaw flowers have six petals and are chocolatey brown with a velvety texture.


The first recorded mention of pawpaws comes from Hernando de Soto’s expedition to the southeastern United States in 1541. There is evidence that Native Americans have cultivated pawpaws throughout eastern North America for hundreds of years, both for its fruit and fibrous bark.

Pawpaws have been a favorite local fruit throughout the history of the United States. References to their historical use including consumption on the Lewis and Clarke expedition, cultivation in Thomas Jefferson’s orchards at Monticello, and service as a favorite dessert of George Washington!

With the advent of motor transport and commercial fruit growing, the pawpaw has lost popularity due to its poor transportability. However, many growers across North America are seeking to bring it back! This includes efforts to educate people about the existence of this delicious fruit, and also the cultivation of improved varieties.

Since the 1980s, plant geneticist Neal Peterson has studied and selected pawpaw traits, resulting in the creation of six patented, improved varieties with better flavor and higher flesh to seed ratios. Keep an eye out for these varieties when selecting your pawpaw fruit or trees, they include Alleghany, Potomac, Rappahannock, Shenandoah, Susquehanna, and Wabash varieties!

Pawpaw Fruit

The interior of a pawpaw fruit, featuring its distinctive custard yellow flesh and round black seeds. Source: Red Fern Farm

Sometimes called the “banana of North America,” pawpaw fruit is a delicacy that must be tasted to be understood!

Other than gourds, pawpaw fruit grows larger than any other species native to North America! Fruits can grow up to 6 inches long and a 1.5 pounds each! Fruits turn from yellowish-green to brown as they ripen. The interior of a pawpaw fruit is custard colored with a row of large black seeds.

Pawpaws have a unique flavor that is often described as somewhere between a mango and a banana. I’ve also heard comparisons made to papayas, vanilla, and pears. The flesh has a rich, custardy texture unlike anything grown outside of the tropics. As much as we can try to describe them, ultimately, you’ll have to go try one for yourself!

Commercial production of pawpaw fruit has not caught on because the fruits spoil quickly and bruise easily. If you are looking to try pawpaws, we recommend looking for them at local farmers markets, or growing your own!

It is important to note that pawpaw fruit contains a chemical called annonacin, which can be poisonous. This is not a concern if you’re eating the fruit raw, as there is not enough of this chemical to be harmful. However, we advise against using pawpaw fruit in recipes where the juice of a lot of pawpaws will be highly concentrated, such as in fruit leathers.

Why We Love Pawpaws

Obviously, our favorite reason to grow pawpaw trees is for their delicious fruit! However they have a number of other properties that make them a great addition to any forest garden:

  • Shade-Adapted: Pawpaw trees are extremely shade tolerant, making them an ideal understory tree for any forest garden. Although they produce more fruit with more sunlight, they will continue to create abundant yields in habitats that would stifle many other fruit trees.
  • Low Maintenance: Pawpaw trees require no pruning after establishment. Combined with their hardiness, discussed below, this means that the only work for you, after planting, will be harvesting and eating tasty pawpaw fruit!
  • Low Disease and Pest Pressure: The bark and leaves of pawpaw trees have insecticidal and fungicidal properties. This means that pawpaws have very low incidence of disease or insect damage. These chemicals also make the trees unappetizing to browsing critters like deer, so they require virtually no effort to protect and keep healthy!
  • Organic Insecticide: The insecticidal properties described above also mean that pawpaw leaves, bark, and branches can be used to produce an organic insecticide to protect other plants in your garden.
  • Soil Stabilization: Pawpaws have large taproots, good moisture tolerance, and spread via rhizomes to form clusters. These qualities make them excellent for stabilizing soil, both on eroding slopes and on streambanks.
  • Plant Fibers: Native Americans traditionally used the tough inner bark of pawpaw trees for making ropes, string, nets, and mats.
  • Coppicing: Pawpaw trees naturally self-propagate through patch-forming clonal growth. This means that many trunks will form from one underground root system. You can coppice these trunks to extend the life of the plant and to use the logs for fencing, poles, etc.
  • Seeds: Less functional, more fun – pawpaws have beautiful seeds that have historically been used as good luck charms!

Starting Seeds and Planting

pawpaw tree
A row of pawpaw trees below a sugar maple. Source: Cbarlow

It is relatively easy to grow pawpaw trees from seed. Seeds are best planted soon after the fruit is harvested, as they will lose viability if they dehydrate to less than 5% moisture, or if stored too long (typically 2-3 years in moist storage). You should plant seeds deeply in a container. The pawpaw’s long taproot will push the seed out of the soil if planted too shallowly. Container growing is recommended for portability – young seedlings can be damaged by full sunlight and should be grown in the shade, but ultimately should be planted in partial to full sunlight for best fruiting. Grown from seed, pawpaw trees will take around 8-10 years to begin fruiting.

For convenience, it is often more popular to plant pawpaw seedlings from a nursery, which are hardier and will reach fruiting maturity sooner. It is also possible to purchase improved varieties from certain nurseries. Seedlings can be planted directly, and can reach fruiting maturity in 4-6 years. Use best tree-planting practices when planting your seedlings, to ensure their best performance.

Pawpaws are self-infertile, meaning you will need to plant at least two different varieties to ensure pollination. Trees are insect-pollinated and should be planted 10-20 feet apart for best pollination.

Pawpaw trees cast deep shade and should not be planted near smaller species that require full sunlight.


Young pawpaws need to be protected from full sunlight and strong winds. However, once they are established, pawpaw trees are incredibly hardy and require relatively little care.

Pruning mature trees is unnecessary. However, pawpaws will self-propagate via rhizomes, sprouting suckers near the base of the original seedling. If you wish to keep a more “orchard-like” feel to your pawpaw patch, you can prune these suckers. For a more “thicket-like” structure to your pawpaws, you can allow these suckers to grow into new trunks. Coppicing these trunks over time can improve longevity of individual plants well beyond their ordinary lifespan of 20-25 years.

Harvesting and Storage

After planting, a tree grown from seed will begin flowering in around 8-10 years. A grafted seedling can begin flowering in as little as 2 years. Peak bearing age of a pawpaw tree is from 10 to 12 years old, with individual trunks living 20-25 years.

Mature pawpaw trees will typically flower from April to May and bear fruit from August to October.

You should harvest fruit by hand, directly from the tree. Pawpaw fruit does not ripen fully on the tree and should be allowed to ripen another day or two before eating.

Pawpaw fruit is not particularly shelf stable. You can keep fruits at room temperature for 3 days to a week or 1-2 weeks if refrigerated. They also freeze well, and can be enjoyed raw or frozen!

Pawpaw Recipes

Although our favorite way to enjoy pawpaw fruits is by simply cutting the raw fruit in half and scooping it out with a spoon, there are many ways you can use a pawpaw in your cooking. The easiest way to start cooking with pawpaw is to think about recipes where you would use bananas or mangos and simply make a one to one substitution. It’s that easy!

Here are some of our favorite suggestions for cooking with pawpaw:

  • Pawpaw Salsa (from Friends Drift Inn) – if you love mango salsa, look no further than this simple substitution, using your favorite new native fruit!
  • Pawpaw Quick Bread (from Alexandra’s Kitchen) – similar to a banana bread, this simple recipe makes a great dessert treat to use up your over-ripe pawpaws!
  • Pawpaw Ice Cream (from Baker’s Brigade) – frozen pawpaw may have been a favorite dessert of George Washington, but we’ve found a way to improve on a classic!


This article has been an introduction to everything that is great about the pawpaw tree! If you would like to learn more about pawpaw trees or how you can start using them in your forest garden, let us know in the comments or send us an e-mail. Happy gardening!

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