Pawpaws are small deciduous trees that are hardy in Zones 5 to 8 and usually grow 15 to 20 feet tall (up to 40 feet under ideal conditions). They are attractive, with large showy leaves and a pyramidal shape. Sometimes suckers form, creating a pawpaw thicket. Like persimmon trees, they are more commonly grown in the South.
Pawpaw flowers are maroon and inconspicuous, about 1 1/2 inches across, and appear in late May before the leaves expand. Depending on pollination, trees bear clusters of one to six fruits. The fruits are usually 4 to 6 inches long with thin green skin and whitish flesh.
Two unrelated pawpaws are required for successful pollination. Hand pollination can increase fruiting because bees show little interest in the flowers. Flies can pollinate pawpaw flowers, so some growers hang pieces of rotting meat from the plants to attract them.
When ripe, the fruits turn yellowish black, resembling overripe bananas in looks and texture and somewhat in flavor. The flesh is rich and sweet with a custard consistency, has a very distinctive flavor, and has many dark brown seeds about the size of lima beans. The fruits ripen from mid-September until frost. They are very perishable and too fragile for commercial handling. While usually eaten fresh, some gardeners dry or freeze them.
Pawpaws prefer full sun and fertile, moist but well-drained soil. They are difficult to transplant and should be moved to their final location while still small. Keep them weed-free, especially as they are getting established. They are not as cold hardy or drought tolerant as persimmons. Water plants deeply during dry periods.
Insect pests and diseases are seldom a problem. The principal maintenance concern is removing suckers. If you want a single-stemmed plant, remove all the suckers as they appear. if you prefer a hedge or screen of pawpaw plants, allow them to grow. Suckering diminishes as the tree ages.
Some cultivars for New York home gardens include Davis, Sunflower, Taylor, and Taytwo. Seedlings are interesting to grow because of the variable fruit size and quality. Fruit from seedlings may fail to ripen before frost. You can harvest fruit before frost and allow it to ripen indoors. Select only dark-fleshed cultivars because white-fleshed fruit may be bitter.
California Rare Fruit Growers at www.crfg.org/pubs/ff/pawpaw.html
Kentucky State University Pawpaw Planting Guide at www.pawpaw.kysu.edu /pawpaw/ppg.html
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