I have a theory that most gardeners and every person who has hiked somewhere in the eastern North American forest will at some point developed an infatuation with pawpaw trees. Mine occurred somewhere in the early 1980s and it hit me hard. Went all in and never drifted. And over the decades, I’ve learned enough to indulge myself in a little myth-busting. At that time, there were a lot of misconceptions: pawpaws seldom fruit. They require male trees to fruit or a dead animal dangling from a branch to rot and attract carion-seeking pollinators. Pawpaws could only grow in the shade and they were all but impossible to transplant. Much of this followed a train of logic derived from observing them in the wild, which was not indicative of what they can do in a cultivated setting.
But at first a lot of what I learned came from observing them in the wild. I had a job where I wound up clearing invasive honeysuckle from a wooded property. In and among the honeysuckle and other invasive species were a lot of pawpaw trees. Or, to be correct, there was a huge pawpaw colony. Thousands of what looked like individual trees were instead all stems coming from one root system, each a clone along with all the others, sprawled over at least 22 acres. And not one of them ever bore a fruit because of it. Over 15 years working there, I never saw a single fruit. It didn’t matter if it was during the honeysuckle years, after the honeysuckle years, in the sun, in the shade, down near the creek, whatever. And this is just what you’d expect from a single colony, because pawpaws are not self-fertile. They need another pawpaw, with its own personal genetics, soemwhere close to cross pollinate with. And that patch never had one.
Until I planted them. Yep. I threw a dozen or more seeds along the long, winding driveway and in time at least some of them grew and flowered and eventually those trees and some of the ones near them started producing fruit. Never bumper crops, but always some. I know there’s a bit of a leap of faith when I say that a single patch covered that much ground and maybe even more on adjoining properties, but why couldn’t a suckering plant not spread itself over such acreage in a landscape halfway down the path of transfoming back into a forest after a stint serving as a pasture?
And because it was all one clone, digging up and transplanting any of its little sprouts was useless. These were just young shoots coming up from large trunk roots and you could never dig enough root for them to make it on their own. Hence, one of the first myths I read about pawpaws was busted. It was common knowledge at the time that pawpaws were impossible to transplant. Ok, that is indeed true if you’re digging them from the wild. But it’s 100% false, I came to find out, if you are transplanting seed-grown pawpaws out of containers.
It was probably in the 2000s that I began growing them from seeds and I grew literally hundreds of them. Initially, I planted seeds I had purchased but in only five years or so my original seedlings were already producing fruit so I started planting seeds from those. The best method I found for germinating the seeds was quick, easy, cheap, lazy and educational. I simply filled a 5-gallon pot with Pro-Mix amended with some finely chipped limestown gravel. This made the pot heavier (and less likely to get kicked over) and the mix a little looser. I then layered seeds shoulder to shoulder over the entire top of the media and covered them with another inch of media. Then I simply left the pot outside for the winter.
That next spring, about 75% germination. But not in the way I expected. That 75% germinated when the media’s temperature hit about 70F, which is normal and exactly what I expected. However, with the pawpaw seedlings’ spare, taproot root systems, they pulled easily from the 5-gallon pot. From there, I either transplanted them into their own containers or straight into the ground. But because they pulled so cleanly, I never had to dump out the 5-gallon nursery pot. Therefore, the remaining seeds stayed in the pot and I figured they would germinate the following spring. Again, which would be normal. But to my surprise, in a sweltering midsummer heatwave when the potting mix must have gotten into the 80s or 90s, almost all the remaining seed germinated. Well, hell, that’s not supposed to happen. So maybe that was caused by some genetic quirk leftover from pawpaws being the sole temperate species from an otherwise tropical genus? I don’t know.
At that time I was growing a lot of tree species from seed. One of the best things about doing that is having bounties of seedlings lying around makes them expendable. You can try all sorts of things with them. For instance, regarding the question as to whether pawpaws can actually grow in full sun, I planted some out in the open and, yep, they did just fine! And they didn’t get much in the way of extra water. Since that time I’ve seen others grown in full sun and they, too, are growing well. In fact, when they are grown in the open, they develop a pronounced and appealing pyramidal form.
The twelve I planted in full sun, I planted them all close together hoping to foster good pollination. It did and I get a lot of fruit. More fruit than I can use. In fact, when ripening is at its peak, the whole yard smells like pawpaw fruit. Its both wonderful and cloying at the same time. Funny, with so many bearing pawpaws at hand, I’ve never developed a taste for them. Virtually all of them are consumed by wildlife of some kind. And, by the way, I’ve never hung a dead animal from them and I still get great pollination. Every year. We’ve never had a bad year for fruiting.
They tell me SW Ohio is at the heart of the pawpaw’s native range. I haven’t looked into that, so maybe that too is pawpaw lore with little to no attachment to truth. Who cares? I love pawpaw trees. In the shade, spindly and stretching. In the sun, pyramidal and bedecked with foliage of a tropical flare. Lumpy fruits that look like green potatoes that have creamy flesh that tastes sort of like bananas and sort of like nothing else. The clearest yellow fall color. It’s even a host for one of my favorite butterflies, the zebra swallowtail. So go ahead and plant a pawpaw. Put it where you can live with another stem or two, or ten, because they will sucker. Pawpaws may appear to be small trees. The tag and the books surely say so. But given enough time, that pawpaw you plant might colonize the neighborhood, and it might, just might, exceed in biomass all the so-called bigger trees. Who knows? I suspect we still have a lot to learn about pawpaws.