Paw Paw Trees – Suitable for the City or the Country

When one thinks of the cultivation of tropical fruit, Illinois is not what usually springs to mind.  Warm climates with palm trees and land cleared from jungle environments is what most have a picture when thinking about the cultivation of mangoes, papaya, and other exotic fruits.  But there is a tropical tasting fruit that grows on an understory tree in the forests of Illinois and in much of the U.S. from Missouri to the Appalachians south to Northern Florida.  The largest edible fruit indigenous to the United States; the paw paw , Asimina triloba, in the same plant family as several tropical fruit trees including the custard-apple, cherimoya, sweetsop, ylang-ylang and soursop.

Paw Paw fruit1.jpg                productimages

Paw paw fruit                                                                                        Sliced paw paw fruit

Kentucky State University                                                                Stark Bros.

Paw Paw at farmers             Mango Grafted

Paw paw fruit at a farmers market                                               “Mango Grafted” paw paw fruit

Kentucky State University                                                            Stark Bros

I heard about the paw paw tree a long time ago, probably from an old Herbert Zim, Golden Guides book on trees that I read in grade school. I have always wanted to grow one of these trees that are described as a tropical fruit growing in the temperate forest.  I searched in vain for the elusive paw paw throughout the Cook County Forest Preserve that was one of my stomping grounds as a kid. It was a futile search but one that made the paw paw only more fascinating.

I wished that I could find one in a grocery store, both to see what it tasted like and as a source for seed, but I never found one and did not even know if they were commercially available. Wanting to grow one I could not find paw paws for sale at any Chicago Area garden centers or nurseries. As I used to be more of an urban dweller, I didn’t even know if the paw paw could stand the rigors of urban life anyway. Now that I am a well-established amateur farmer, and the internet is available to source paw paw trees, I thought what the heck am I waiting for? I have 22 acres that I can fill up, so this spring I ordered a couple of paw paw trees from Stark Bros..


My Paw Paw2 My Paw Paw1

This spring I planted two paw paw trees, one is a variety called “Mango Grafted and the other is just labeled ”Paw Paw”


The fruit of the pawpaw is large, yellowish-green to brown 2–6 in long and 1–3 in wide, weighing from ½ to 1 pound, containing several brown seeds 1/2 to 1 in diameter embedded within fruit pulp. The fruits begin developing after the plants flower; they are initially green, maturing by September or October to yellow or brown. The fruit pulp is edible and has the consistency of a banana with a flavor reminiscent of a tropical fruit. In its native environment, it is found in well-drained areas of both bottom-land and hilly uplands. It has large, simple leaves and large fruits.

Paw paw with tree shelters                                                  Paw paw trees in a orchard

Paw paw trees with tree shelters for protection                                      Paw paw trees in a orchard

Kentucky State University                                                                          Kentucky State University

As for growing paw paw trees I wanted to find an expert to help me grow a successful crop. I consulted Sheri Crabtree, Co-Investigator of Horticulture at Kentucky State University. With the only full time paw paw research program in the world, Kentucky State University’s pawpaw research efforts are directed at improving propagation methods, developing orchard management recommendations, conducting regional variety trials, understanding fruit ripening and storage techniques, and germplasm collection and characterization of genetic diversity. I thought who better to ask than an expert from Kentucky State?


Sherri Crabtree 2

Sheri Crabtree

Kentucky State University

Ms. Crabtree, who along with Kirk Pomper, won the 2008 Shepard Award for “Best Research Paper Of The Year” for their work on the paw paw, was kind enough to answer a few questions that I sent her:

What family of plants do paw paws belong to?

“Pawpaw is part of the Annonaceae, or custard apple family. It is the only member of the family that grows in temperate climates, all the others are tropical.”

Are they grown commercially?

“Pawpaws are grown commercially on a small scale. I know of orchards in Kentucky, Ohio, Missouri, Michigan, North Carolina, West Virginia, Maryland, South Carolina, Arkansas, California, Rhode Island, and there are likely more that I am not aware of.”

I am planning to grow them in Central Illinois (zone 5), what soil types and in what areas do they do best in? What advice do you have for anybody who wants to grow paw paw trees in Central or Northern Illinois?

“Pawpaw trees grow best in a deep, rich soil that is well drained but will hold some water, and is high in organic matter.”

What flavor do pawpaws have?

“Pawpaws have a tropical flavor, best described as a blend of mango and banana. Different varieties have different undertones, such as coconut, pineapple, vanilla, caramel, and melon. “

Do they propogate well from seed? What is the best way to propogate them?

“You can propagate pawpaws from seed, they need to be moist chilled (we keep them in the refrigerator in bags of moist peat moss) for at least 3 months to stratify, and they should be stored that way until you are ready to plant them, they can’t be dried or frozen like some seeds. Pawpaws are not true to type, there is a lot of variation among seedlings, so if there was a certain variety you wanted to propagate you would need to graft them. We collect scion wood in late winter; store it in the refrigerator, then in late spring we graft onto actively growing seedling rootstock. We usually chip bud them, but whip and tongue and other methods of grafting can be used also.”

Are there dwarf varieties for people who want to grow them in small areas?

“There are no dwarf varieties, but pawpaw is a pretty small tree so it isn’t really necessary. They can get up to 15-20 feet tall, but you can prune them to keep them smaller.”

Do they do well in urban areas?

“They do fine in urban areas since they are a small tree, they only need about 8 feet between trees.”

Some fruits require more than one tree or more than one variety in order for a tree to set fruit. Is this true with paw paws?

“You do need two different varieties to cross-pollinate to set fruit.”

What other advice would you give a first time paw paw grower?

“We have a list of nurseries that carry pawpaw trees at . Of these, we recommend Nolin River Nut Tree Nursery, Hidden Springs, One Green World, Forrest Keeling, Stark Bros., and Edible Landscaping as a few that we have experience with and know sell good quality trees. Some pawpaw varieties we recommend are KSU Atwood, Sunflower, Overleese, NC-1, Shenandoah, Susquehanna, Potomac, and Wabash.”

Sherri Crabtree 1

Sheri Crabtree in the field

Kentucky State University

I would like to thenk Sheri Crabtree for ansering the questions that I had about the paw paw! It sounds like it is a tree that would be suitable for the city or the country. If you want something different and is certainly interesting you might want to grow a couple of paw paw trees yourself!

KSU has a lot of general information on growing pawpaws in their publications, Pawpaw Planting Guide and Organic Production of Pawpaw.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: