Pawpaw

Photo by Gayla Trail  All Rights Reserved

Until very recently, pawpaws have been one of those mythical fruits that I’ve known about for ages, but have never seen in person. Until just a few years ago I was under the mistaken impression that they are native to the Southeastern United States, but not available here. Chalk it up to geographical ignorance; I should have paid more attention during Geography class.

I now know that there are pawpaw trees that not only thrive in our slightly cooler climate, but at least one, Asimina triloba, that is native to this region. Imagine that? While it is widely known that I am a winter wimp that should start complaining about the cold and the hardships endured any day now, the fact is that this part of Canada is not the Yukon. We have a nice long growing season and our summers are as hot as can be, just hot and long enough to grow some pretty fantastic tomatoes, peppers, and even tomatillos that typically require a long season.

Contrary to popular belief, we do not receive our mail by dogsled, nor do we live in igloos.

In fact, I live in south end of Toronto, closest to Lake Ontario (one of the Great Lakes) and as a result enjoy both the snuggly benefits of the concrete jungle and a warming lake effect. I grew up in the Niagara Region, a part of this province that is widely known as a fruit and wine producer. Niagara is one of the warmest parts of this region, the result of sitting between several bodies of water including two Great Lakes and underneath an escarpment.

When I first heard about pawpaws in this region, I was told they are primarily found in Niagara. Since then they have enjoyed a renewed interest from Toronto backyard gardeners looking to plant native fruit trees, and are beginning to pop up all over the place. These days everyone seems to be talking about pawpaws.

Photo by Gayla Trail  All Rights Reserved

I was pleasantly surprised when they showed up at The Dufferin Grove Farmers’ Market last Thursday. The price was high (about $4 for 2), but worth it to finally get a taste of this mysterious fruit. I bought two: one that was ripe and ready for eating, and an unripe specimen for picture-taking.

A ripe pawpaw is not particularly pretty to behold. It is mushy and brown-black with a strong fragrance that reminds me of a cross between mango and bananas with a hint of pear thrown it. It’s no shock that pawpaws have a familiar, tropical smell since they are related by family to sweetsop (one of my very favourite tropical fruits) and custard-apple. They taste like they smell, although both of mine have had a bitter aftertaste that wasn’t very appealing. Despite an initial letdown, I’m willing to give it one more shot since there is always the chance that it was a bad year or a bad crop. I never give up on a fruit entirely until I’ve tried it at least three times to be fair.

Having never grown pawpaw myself, I don’t know much about their cultivation needs (perhaps some of you with personal experience can chime in), but I do know that if you want to produce a decent crop, you’ll need to make room for two trees. I’ve heard they are not easy to germinate but my friend Barry managed to germinate an entire tray of seedlings so it is certainly possible.

I gave the seeds away from my first plant and will happily give away the 10 seeds from my second fruit to the first two interested readers. Let me know in the comments and I’ll email you back for your mailing address. They’re gone. Thanks.

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

Subscribe to get weekly updates from Gayla

28 thoughts on “Pawpaw

  1. I think paw paws are officially my favorite fruit. It makes me tingly to know that such exotically flavored fruit grows wild in our region. There is a woman near Chicago that cultivates them and I was sure to save a few seeds this year to plant somewhere in the spring. Her advice was to keep the seeds wrapped in a moist paper towel in a plastic bag in the fridge over the winter and simply plant in the ground in the spring. She makes it sound as if they are pretty easy to grow. She says it takes about six years to get good fruit bearing trees.

  2. So cool to see pawpaw here! They are native to Maryland, too, though raccoons and other critters usually get them in the wild before they fully ripen.

    We just tried them for the first time this year, also … My husband works at a native plant nursery and was able to bring a couple fruits home. He’s trying his hand at propagation, so I don’t need any seeds, but will gladly share our results. :-)

  3. I, too, would love some seeds if you have any left, and if you’re allowed to send them to the U.S. I am so excited that this wonderful fruit is finally getting its turn in the spotlight.

  4. Good post- I’m quite interested! I have a growing fruit grove on my farm and would love to try the pawpaws.

  5. Ha! Yes that’s why botanical names are important. But apparently the North American pawpaw actually got its name because it reminded people of the tropical version, which we call papaya.

  6. Gayla –

    Since you’ll be heading south to the Caribbean soon, thought I’d mention that we Trinis too (and I suspect many of the islanders from the Caribbean) call papaya “pawpaw.”

    I’ve never seen the fruit you’ve featured here, however — so interesting!

    K.

  7. Hey, I’m totally interested and in Guelph! That’s close! I’ve currently got passion fruit seedlings and a plumeria under a light. Plumeria came from a seed and it’s been growing for about 3 years and is no bigger than 6 inches in height. I found out that they’re usually grown from cuttings, so the fact I even got it to sprout was a good thing. At this rate, it’ll be another 20 years before it flowers.

    My poor bay plant got ravaged this summer from culinary endeavors. Poor thing needs new leaves.

  8. A friend of my just successfully produced pawpaw fruit this season. He had to hand pollinate between his 2 trees. It must be difficult because he was very proud.
    Was it the favorite fruit of Lewis or Clarke?
    There is significant importance in US history with the PawPaw fruit.
    Does it really taste like Banana Pudding?
    I am very interested in them.

  9. A friend of my just successfully produced pawpaw fruit this season. He had to hand pollinate between his 2 trees. It must be difficult because he was very proud.
    Was it the favorite fruit of Lewis or Clarke?
    There is significant importance in US history with the PawPaw fruit.
    Does it really taste like Banana Pudding?
    I am very interested in them.

  10. I started my seeds by keeping them in damp spagnum moss. They spent the winter in the cool greenhouse ( fridge would also be about the same temp.) and found that they had sprouted in the bag in early summer.

    I should also mention that the Guelph Arboretum has a plant sale in late summer and had mature Pawpaws at the last one I attended..

  11. My sister and I remember pawpaw trees being on our grandparents farm in West Virginia when we were kids. Don’t remember ever eating them..

  12. I first learned that pawpaws could be grown in our area back in 1995, at a presentation by Doug Campbell who was one of the founders of the Society of Ontario Nut Growers (SONG). You can have a look at their site here:

    http://www.songonline.ca

    Follow some of the links to see which other surprising tree produce is hardy in Ontario, as well as elsewhere in North America. A good resource for nut nuts (and pawpaw persons>).

  13. It’s funny the paw paw/papaya thing… My dad lived in Africa when he was a kid and had always talked about paw paws. He they were the best fruit and he and his sister loved to eat them as kids. When I found paw paws (American) at the farmers market I called him and said, “I found your paw paws!” He called may aunt and told her I was bringing some to them. When they saw them they said they were not the same as the paw paws in Africa. But now, these are their favorite fruit!

  14. PawPaw trees go wild in Eastern Kentucky where my family is from. I’ve never known anyone to cultivate it on purpose. It’s just sort of one of those things that grows wild in the woods behind your house, like blackberry brambles. Our other “weird” fruit that grows wild is the persimmon tree. It’s bitter, but makes a lovely jam or pie. Thick skinned, many seeded little fruits a bit larger than crab apples. But again, no one here “cultivates” them. We just sort of enjoy them if we’re lucky enough to have one growing behind the house.

  15. Susan: It does sort of taste like banana pudding. It’s very soft and creamy when ripe.

    Helen: Great site. Shagbark hickory is really tasty.

    Art: I love it.

    J.Smith: I haven’t come in contact with the local persimmons but know about them. That’s on my list of fruit to find. Funny how wild, locally grown fruit can be harder to come by than tropical stuff that is shipped in and sold everywhere.

  16. Exciting to learn about a new fruit, thanks! Is the fruit as big as a potato? I’m also wondering if you have any pictures of it growing where you are, I’d like to see a tree loaded with those fruits. Maybe it’s time to use google.

  17. Pawpaws aren’t hard to grow, but they are tough to transplant, because they have a long, flesy taproot. They grow rather slowly after they are established, but tolerate a bit of shade and have few pest problems. Eventually, they spread by runners.

    Grafted cultivars are available, but they come fairly true to seed.

    Oikos tree crops sells one to three year old pawpaw seedlings for a great price. Based on the length of the taproot on these, I don’t know how vendors that sell larger ones do it.

  18. Pawpaws aren’t hard to grow, but they are tough to transplant, because they have a long, flesy taproot. They grow rather slowly after they are established, but tolerate a bit of shade and have few pest problems. Eventually, they spread by runners.

    Grafted cultivars are available, but they come fairly true to seed.

    Oikos tree crops sells one to three year old pawpaw seedlings for a great price. Based on the length of the taproot on these, I don’t know how vendors that sell larger ones do it.

  19. Our Pawpaws in South Africa are definitely not the same as yours. They have tons of little round black seeds inside that are very easy to germinate and grow. In Johannesburg we get winter frost that kills the trees though so I don;t bother. However at my folks beach house on the Kwa-Zulu Natal coast the trees are wild and we have an abundance of fruit throughout the summer – the monkeys love them too. I like adding them to fruit juicing as they make the texture into a smoothy like text. without the dairy. Yours looks very interesting.

  20. Thanks for such an interesting post. I’ve never tried one, but have always wanted to. In fact, I’ve never even seen one so thanks for the pictures, too! I remember when we were in Kindergarten we’d sing a little song about ‘picking up the PawPaws, put them in your pocket’…never really knowing what the heck we were supposed to be picking up!

  21. I was born & raised In West Va . there used to be a lot of Pawpaws growing there . but something happend to them and we could not find them growing in the woods any more . we would love to go out and gather them to eat . I did not think that there were any to be found until I read your Web Page . thanks for the up date on them ,
    Carol

  22. Forgot to say that I am growing them indoors for the winter… I water every day just enough to keep moist… when is the best time to plant in yard, and how big should they be to plant… thanks for any advise I live in southern Ontario

  23. Hi there,

    What about talking to Mr. Grimo of Grimo Nut Nursery (grimonut.com) in Niagara-on-the-Lake? As a Niagara girl myself, I’ve had the opportunity to talk with him (about nuts) – he’s a great living resource, as well as a lovely person to chat with. Grimo is the past president of the Northern Nut Growers Association, and besides nut trees sells paw-paws and other native trees – persimmon, quince…think if the possibilities! :-)

  24. We have paw paws growing in the wild here . My father was a herbologist and he always warned us to not eat over two pawpaws, or we would be sorry.
    The have a diarrhetic effect . Yes they do sort of taste like bananas but really they have there own taste. The pawpaw tree’s do seem to be dissappearing here in northwest Ohio along with our honey bee’s.

Comments are closed.