A fruit-bearing tree, the pawpaw plant (Asimina triloba) is a northern cousin to such exotic fruits as cherimoya and soursop. Despite its heritage as North American fruit, pawpaws carry the mystique of the tropics in their creamy flesh. Fans usually describe the pawpaw's flavor and texture as a cross between vanilla custard and banana ice cream.
Pawpaws don't often appear in the produce aisle, making them well worth growing yourself, or seeking out at the farmers' market. The USDA lists pawpaws as a worthwhile "alternative crop" to grow for profit.
Advantages for the Home Gardener or Market Farmer
The pawpaw's reputation as an unmarketable fruit persists, probably because the easily-bruised fruits don't travel well commercially. Although they make delicious jams and tea breads, the pawpaw's many seeds have so far proven to be difficult to process commercially.
However, home gardeners can enjoy the fruits fresh, or, with a little effort, in baked goods and preserves. Market gardeners who don't have the concerns of shipping the fruit large distances may have good luck selling pawpaws to customers eager for something new.
Pawpaws don't tower over the landscape as standard apple or walnut trees do. They seldom grow taller than 25 feet. Pawpaws growing in full sun develop a pyramid shape with dropping branches, according to Purdue University, while those in shade grow more upright.
Depending on the variety and the number of seeds within, the fruits themselves are round or oval, weighing up to one pound. The green fruits grow lighter as they ripen. The ripe flesh is creamy and yellow.
Germinating pawpaw seeds may be somewhat tricky, and these days the trees are readily available from major nurseries. Buy at least two cultivars of the pawpaw, because the trees are not self-pollinating.
Some growers achieve greater yield by hand-pollinating the flowers from one tree with the pollen from another, using an artists' paintbrush. If the soil is heavy clay, add compost or peat moss to lighten it.
Shade-plagued gardeners welcome pawpaws as one of the few trees capable of bearing fruit without six hours of sun a day. While pawpaws produce greater yields in full sun, the trees do bear fruit in shade or semi-shade.
When growing pawpaws in full sun, give the young trees some shade during their first year or two. Pawpaws prefer moist but not boggy soils. They also like slightly acid soils, with an ideal pH level between 5.5 to 7.0.
Harvest and Storage
If you plan to eat pawpaws within a day or two of harvest, wait until they are fully ripe. Ripe pawpaws exude an intensely fragrant scent, and yield to the touch in much the same manner as a ripe avocado. In addition, the skin turns light green, sometimes with streaks of yellow. Over-ripe fruit sometimes sports brown patches.
Ripe pawpaws last up to two days at room temperature and a week in the refrigerator. For a longer shelf life, harvest the fruits before they fully ripen. Refrigerate the unripe fruits for up to two weeks and finish the ripening process at room temperature.
Some old-timers still call papaya fruits "pawpaws," but in horticultural circles only one fruit, the Asimina Triloba, bears the common name pawpaw.