The Common Pawpaw is a true native american. Wild Pawpaws are mostly found as an under story tree in mature hardwood forests.
It’s large drooping oval leaves give it an almost magnolia like appearance. Those large leaves are very efficient in the low light of the deep forest. It is that efficiency that allows the Pawpaw to fill its niche in the forest environment.
Growing from 8′ to 30 ‘ tall it fit in the low to middle levels of the eastern forest structure. It is tall enough to grow above the River Cane thickets of the original forest. Pawpaws provide a soft fruit relished by humans and wildlife in the fall.
Many know the Pawpaw by the pungent aroma of its bruised leaves, often knowing the smell but not realizing it’s source. Native Americans used the tree and its fruit for a variety of medicinal uses.
The Pawpaws unique place in the forest is made possible by the trees multiple means of reproduction. Pawpaw trees multiply by root suckers as well as by seed. Because they grow in deep shade, fruit production can be hit or miss. Root suckers can form great thickets of genetically identical trees.
The Pawpaw trees adaptation to the deep forest aside it will grow very well in full sun. In the deep woods, Pawpaws fruit lightly if at all. But, in full sun , the trees fruit heavily. A general rule with all fruiting trees is: Sunlight= Fruit.
The form of the pawpaw tree in the deep woods is tall, open, and airy. In full sun the form is thick, stocky, and has a distinct light green Magnolia feel.
Pawpaws bloom very early with the earliest forest wildflowers. The blooms are inconspicuous. 1″ to 1 1/4″ in diameter, a deep burgundy red, with a quilted appearance. The flowers are mostly pollinated by flies. The fragrance, if any, is that of rotten meat, thus the flies as pollinators.
Again the forest strategy comes to play as the flowers are produced before the forest leaves fill out. This makes pollination more likely than if they were to open in the deep shade of summer.
The fruit is a dull green and blends in well with the foliage. The fruits are hard and have a white flesh until ripe. As they ripen, some fruits develop a yellow caste while some remain the same dull green.The flesh, as they ripen, changes from a hard chalky white to golden with a custard consistency. Wildlife find these ripe fruits by their tropical aroma.
The flesh of the fruit is the edible portion. The skin and seeds should be discarded. The flavor is distinct and somewhat tropical. Pawpaws can be eaten as is or used in baked goods. They make an excellent ice cream.
Though fairly common throughout its native range, Pawpaws are seldom harvested.The fruit is very delicate when ripe and they do not store or transport well. Another drawback is the fruit of an individual tree may ripen over a period of days requiring multiple harvest days.
Pawpaw seeds are large and primitive. They consist of an immature embryo when the fruit ripens. In fact it is difficult to find any sign of life in a freshly ripened seed. The seed must remain moist and cool but not frozen until spring. During this time the embryo fills the seed cavity and with the warmth of spring germination begins.
The seed takes 45 to 60 days of warmth to produce a radicle (root).; Once the radicle emerges, the seed takes another 45 to 60 days to produce it’s first leaf. The Pawpaw does not produce a cotyledon, it’s first leaf is a true leaf.
Growth of the new seedling is very slow, 4″ to 6″ the first year. Once established they grow more rapidly and are bearing age in 4 to 5 years.
More information on Pawpaws can be found through these organizations:
The North American Pawpaw Growers Association-NAPGA
The Ohio Pawpaw Growers Association-OPGA