A Pawpaw Patch of Your Own

by Cindy Gilberg

One of the many childhood songs we learn has the lyrics “Picking up paw-paws, put ‘em in a basket…way down yonder in the paw-paw patch.” I did not realize exactly what that meant until I first tasted the delicious and exotic pawpaw fruit. The native pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba) is the only cold-climate representative of a family of otherwise tropical plants. Dark reddish-brown flowers appear in spring with an odor of rotting grapes that attracts its pollinators—beetles and flies. Pawpaw fruit, resembling small greenish-yellow bananas, hangs in clusters of 2-3 from its branches in autumn and has a flavor reminiscent of banana-mango custard. Because of the popularity of this fruit among birds and other wildlife, many people pick the fruit just prior to ripening and ripen it inside to ensure that they get a taste of its sweet pulp.

Pawpaw is the only host plant for one of our most beautiful butterflies—the zebra swallowtail. Because of this close and very specific relationship, the native range of the butterfly is the same as that of the pawpaw tree. They both are found from Pennsylvania to Nebraska and south to Florida and Texas. Zebra swallowtails are seen in early spring searching for young pawpaw leaves on which to lay their eggs. The leaves and twigs contain a bitter-tasting chemical that, when eaten by the caterpillars, makes them bitter as well and therefore free from predation by birds. The bitter leaves also make the pawpaw a good choice for deer resistant landscaping.

The “patch” in the children’s song refers to the way in which pawpaw trees spread by rhizomes and grow into large colonies or groves. Not a large tree, the pawpaw grows about 20-30 ft. tall with large, tropical-looking leaves. Though its natural habitat is shady, low woodlands along creeks and in valleys, it is adaptable to more sunlight as long as there is afternoon shade with adequate organic matter and moisture in the soil. For those low, wet and shady areas of the yard that are typically difficult to landscape and where lawn doesn’t grow, pawpaw is an ideal option that offers some stormwater management. Other native plants that are good companions for this type of site are spicebush (Lindera benzoin), pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia), palm sedge (Carex muskingumensis), ferns, wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), and golden groundsel (Senecio aureus), to name just a few.

Pawpaws are a great choice for use as a small ornamental tree and are increasingly popular in edible landscapes. There are many cultivars available–just ask your local nursery or find a supplier at Grownative.org. Perhaps the widest variety is available at Forrest Keeling Nursery in Elsberry, MO, just north of St Louis (www.forrestkeeling.com). When purchasing pawpaws for your landscape, be sure to choose 2-3 different plants and/or cultivars due to the fact that pawpaw is self-sterile (does not accept pollen from the same tree). This will ensure good cross-pollination and fruit production. Once the fruit ripens, eat it fresh off the tree or try it in custards, cakes and quick breads. Support eating local food by planting some pawpaws—what could be more local than your very own, homegrown fruit?

Cindy Gilberg is a Missouri native and horticulturist whose work includes design and consulting, teaching and writing. Much of her work focuses on native plants, habitat gardens and rain gardens. Cindy’s projects include work at Shaw Nature Reserve and its Native Plant School, the Shaw Professional Landscape Series and the Deer Creek Watershed Alliance. Cindy can be contacted at 314-630-1004; cindy.gilberg@gmail.com.