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Just what is Paw Paw?

Tulips bloom in Brookgreen Gardens.
Tulips bloom in Brookgreen Gardens. The Sun News file

Paw paw can be described as sweet and delicious with a taste between banana and mango, with perhaps a note of pineapple or citrus. The flavor is delivered in fruit with a creamy custard-like consistency.

It is a tropical treat—almost. All but a few of paw paw’s plant cousins are tropical.

The paw paw tree is a member of a botanical family whose members grow primarily in the tropics. The paw paw, Asimina triloba, is among its few species that grow in a temperate region. Indeed, the tree produces the largest edible fruit native to the United States.

There is 50 million year old evidence of the paw paw. Native Americans, Jamestown settlers and Lewis and Clark ate the fruit. George Washington planted the tree at Mt. Vernon, Thomas Jefferson planted trees at Monticello and The Obama Administration added one to the White House grounds.

Trees typically grow 15-25 ft. tall and wide. Smooth edged leaves hang 10-12 inches long and 4-5 inches wide. They are grouped at the end of branches. Fruit grows in clusters, sometimes singly but usually in clusters of two or more.

Paw paws are typically understory or woods edge trees that grow best in rich slightly acidic soil that is moist but well drained. In nature they grow in filtered light. The first couple of years young trees need shade, but as trees mature more sun produces better fruit and yield.

In the wild paw paws sucker and form groves. The trees have a large taproot and delicate feeder roots which make them difficult to transplant. The suckers are all clones of the mother tree and part of its root system. The trees in a colony are self-incompatible with regard to pollination. It is not worth your effort to dig the suckers and try to grow them. Container grown trees with a larger and independent root mass are a better bet.

Seed grown plants begin bearing fruit 5-7 years after planting while a grafted tree begins bearing fruit in 3-4 years. Seedlings are much cheaper than grafted trees, but the variation in fruit size and flavor in seed grown plants makes a grafted cultivar worth the money. Generally researchers and growers recommend planting two trees or varieties for cross pollination.

Paw paws bloom in early spring. Their maroon blossoms are said to smell like rotted meat.

Their fetid odor attracts flies as pollinators.

The fruit is about 3-6 inches long, the size and shape of a mango. A paw paw can weigh as much as one pound, but in nature fruits usually weigh up to one half pound. A tree’s harvest season is short, only a week or so, in late August – October.

The unripe fruit’s pale green skin may or may not yellow with maturity. Consequently, skin color is a poor indicator of when to pick the fruit. Timing is better determined by the ease with which fruit releases from the tree and gently pressing the fruit to feel for softening. In time the fruit turns brown-black, like an overripe banana.

To make paw paws a marketable crop, university researchers and growers are working to develop fruit that is consistently 10 oz. or larger with yellow to orange flesh, with fewer and smaller seeds and superior flavor. The focus is also on propagation methods, fruit ripening and storage techniques.

Other research focuses on insecticidal properties and anti-cancer compounds in twig tissue as well as anti-oxidant levels and vitamin content in the fruit.

Commercial production of paw paw fruit is still limited. Highly perishable and easily bruised paw paws have a short shelf like. Ripe fruit lasts 2-5 days at room temperature, but it can be kept 1-3 weeks under refrigeration. Frozen pulp lasts much longer.

Enjoy paw paw flavored craft beer, ice cream, baked goods and preserves at a paw paw festival in August or September. Or you may happen upon fresh paw paws at a farmers’ market.

You can also grow a couple of trees in your yard. The plant attracts few pests and is relatively carefree. A number of good cultivars have been identified. They are available by mail order and at a few nurseries.

Once your paw paw trees are established you may watch for the black and white striped zebra swallowtail butterfly. Paw paw trees are its larval host plant.

Reach Debbie Menchek, a Clemson Master Gardener, at dmgha3@aol.com.

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