Tree of the Season: Pawpaw
With so many native trees in bloom this spring, from dogwoods, to serviceberries, to wild black cherries and plums, it’s hard to pick just one as the tree to watch for this season. So instead I am going to highlight a less showy and often unnoticed flowering tree: The Pawpaw, Asimina triloba. Pawpaws are famous for their unique tropical-looking fruit which holds the title of the largest edible fruit native to the United States. Although Pawpaws are native to the Eastern United States, they are the only member of their botanical family to grow in temperate regions. The name “Pawpaw” is even tropical in origin, derived from the word, papaia, an Arawakan word from the Indigenous languages of the Caribbean. Pawpaw was derived from Papaya (the Spanish version of papaia) when early Spanish explorers came across the fruit and referred to it as Papaya, an unrelated but similar looking fruit they knew of in the Caribbean. However, before that, Pawpaws were widely planted and eaten by Indigenous groups throughout the southeastern United States. The fruit was eaten raw, baked as a cake or dried for winter food. Some groups even used the bark for ceremonial purposes. Today you can also sometimes find Pawpaws in ice cream or in other pastry treats.
Pawpaw fruit season is usually September through October, so why talk about Pawpaws in the spring? Well as we all know in order to get fruits, trees must first flower. So let’s take a closer look at this unusual flower.
The Pawpaw flower is a single deep purple brown with 6 petals in 2 tiers, that some may say resembles a wilted dried rose. The flower blooms from April to June and emits a faint odor that can bring to mind the smell of rotting meat. So it doesn’t attract your typical fluttering or buzzing pollinators. Instead the Pawpaw relies on blowflies, fruit flies, carrion flies and beetles. I have even heard jokes claiming that Pawpaws do well in some urban areas where large amounts of trash attract flies to backyard Pawpaw trees. The Pawpaw is not self-pollinating since the stigma ripens before the pollen is produced. Therefore, many growers elect to hand pollinate their trees. However, just because Pawpaws don’t attract birds, bees and butterflies for pollination, doesn’t mean this tree won’t attract and benefit wildlife in your garden or local forest. The Pawpaw is the host plant for both the Zebra Swallowtail butterfly and Pawpaw Sphinx moth. So if you are out for a hike and see a lot a butterflies with a zebra print pattern on their wings, you are likely to find Pawpaws close by. Another added bonus of growing Pawpaws is that deer and rabbits don’t really care for them! They generally will not eat the foliage. However, once they fruit ripens you will need to compete with other wildlife for the delicious fleshy fruit that tastes a bit like a mix between a mango and a banana.
Spring is the season to plant Pawpaws! Transplanting pawpaws can be difficult and is best done with small saplings as they have a very long tap root. Pawpaws are also very easy to grow from seed in early March. Plant your Pawpaws in the spring in an area with part shade and sun. Small Pawpaw trees do best in part shade but will still need significant sun in order to produce fruit. Even if you’re not interested in planting Pawpaws in your home garden, keep a look out for this conspicuous upside down flower on your next hike this spring and early summer and remember their location, you may be lucky enough to come back in the fall and find a delicious Pawpaw fruit treat! They’ve been known to be spotted in Baltimore’s own Gwynns Falls / Leakin Park.