The paw paw tree is native to tropical destinations around the globe. It’s a native species to North America, boasting one of the largest edible fruits, and it makes delicious eating. The soft subtle taste of the fruit varies depending on the species, with the flesh ranging in color from light orange to dark pink or red.
Paw paw trees are common throughout the eastern regions of the US, and they are also native to Hawaii. Native Americans were the first to cultivate the fruit trees for use as food, and it was a dietary staple for many people and remains so to this day.
The paw paw fruit has a short shelf life after harvesting, and many of them won’t reach store shelves because they spoil in transit. The paw paw tree can grow as high as 30-feet with planting in the full sunlight. If you grow the tree in partial shade, it won’t get as big, and it produces smaller fruits, or it might not fruit at all.
The paw paw tree also prefers growing in humid locations, and it won’t produce fruit if there isn’t enough humidity in the air. However, the paw paw is an “understory tree,” meaning it thrives in the shade of other trees.
These fruit trees like growing along waterways and on hillsides, and they also like being close to the beach. You’ll find paw paw trees growing throughout USDA Zone five through nine. This guide gives you everything you need to know about growing these trees.
Planting Paw Paw Trees
Starting cuttings is much easier than growing paw paw trees from seed. However, for the best results, we recommend buying a young tree from a local nursery. You’ll save yourself years of waiting by using this strategy.
Wild paw paw trees are somewhat unpredictable, with some refusing ever to bear fruit. Therefore, gardeners should avoid taking cuttings from wild trees. If you want to grow from seed, it may take months to germinate the seeds and several years just for the plant to reach a few inches in height.
Therefore, choosing a young tree and transplanting it to your yard is the best strategy.
Pick Your Planting Site
The paw paw prefers planting in the full sun. They can exist in shady spots in the garden, but the tree might not bear fruit. It’s important for gardeners to note that paw paw trees do not self-pollinate. Therefore, you’ll need two trees in your yard if you want them to fruit.
Space the trees at least 15-feet apart, or preferably at opposite ends of the yard. The trees require a minimum of six hours of sunlight a day to start fruiting.
Prepare Your Soil
The paw paw tree prefers growing in rich soils with a slightly acidic pH. The soil must drain well, as the paw paw tree will develop root rot with “wet feet.” Typically, you’re looking for a pH range of between 5.5 to 7.0, and gardeners should prepare the planting site with the necessary soil amendments before planting.
Loosen the soil in the planting area and dig a hole a foot deep and three feet in width, loosening the soil to let the roots spread. The paw paw tree grows with a single taproot system, sort of like a weed. Loosening the soil helps the tree establish root systems fast, allowing for large growth in the tree. Compacted soil is challenging for the roots to penetrate, stunting the growth of your paw paw tree.
If you’re transplanting from a container, place your hand on the base of the plant and tip the pot upside down. Loosen the soil by squeezing the sides of the pot, freeing the roots.
Remove the plant from the pot, but don’t shake out the excess soil from the roots. Dangle the root ball into the hole and backfill with soil to create a level soil line around the base of the plant. After filling the hole, pat the soil down lightly with your hands to remove any large air pockets.
After you finish planting your paw paw sapling, water the soil deeply. Paw paw trees don’t like drying out, so you’ll need to keep the soil moist throughout the growing season. Depending on your climate, the tree may need between one to two inches of water each week.
How to Grow and Care for Pawpaw Trees
The paw paw tree will only start producing fruit after the end of the first year. However, it could take several years before the tree begins to bear fruit if you’re starting from seed. If you’re transplanting a young tree, you can increase the chances of optimal fruit production using the following maintenance strategies.
Mulching around the base of the paw paw tree helps to retain moisture in the soil. The organic mulch also breaks down during the growing season, returning nutrients to the ground as you water your plants.
Paw paw trees don’t need much pruning. However, you can prune back branches in the late winter during the trees dormancy cycle. Pruning the tree encourages new growth.
As mentioned, paw paw trees don’t self-pollinate. Therefore, you’ll need two trees in your yard and the assistance of local pollinators to get your trees to start fruiting.
Plant flowers around your garden that attract hummingbirds and bees into your yard. Avoid using pesticides on your paw paw as it may inadvertently kill pollinators.
If you’re growing plants indoors or have limited pollinator colonies where you live, you can hand-pollinate. Use a paintbrush to wipe the pollen from one tree to another.
How to Grow Paw Paws in Containers
When transplanting your paw paw tree, use a pot with a 500mm diameter. The larger the pot, the better, as it gives the roots more space. Position your pot in the full sun, and fill it with potting soil while holding the base of the plant in position.
Pat down the soil to remove air pockets and water deeply. You’ll need to water the plant at least two to three times a week during the first two or three seasons, and you can back off your watering schedule after the plant establishes itself in the container. You’ll need to water more in hot weather, as evaporation increases on hot days.
How to Grow Paw Paw from Seed
As mentioned, using young trees or transplants is the ideal way of bringing a paw paw tree into your garden. However, professional gardeners might want to try the challenge of growing a paw paw tree from seed.
To grow from seed takes a long time, with most trees taking around ten years to reach a stage where they start bearing fruit. Choose a planting site in the full sun, and make your soil amendments using compost to add nutrients.
Sprinkle the seeds in the flower bed and cover them lightly with soil. Water the seeds and keep the soil moist throughout the germination process. Typically, it takes around two to three months for the seeds to germinate and another year or two for the plant to establish roots.
After the plants start flowering, look at the shapes of the blooms. Keep one male plant, and discard the rest of the seedlings. The male plants have long, thin stalks.
Keep all of your female plants. You’ll identify them through their single-bloom flowers that are closer to the trunk than the male counterpart.
Pests and Diseases Affecting Paw Paw Trees
The paw paw has few natural pests for gardeners to concern themselves with during the growing season. The most common pests affecting paw paw trees are pawpaw peduncle borers.
These small moth larvae are around 5mm in length, and they burrow into the flesh of the flower, devouring the blossom from the inside out. If left unattended, the borer will destroy most of the flowers the tree produces during the growing season.
Some other notable pests for paw paw trees include the Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly and fungal infections that cause black spots on the fruit. The paw paw is not attractive to deer or rabbits.
Harvesting Paw Paw Trees
When the paw paw is ripe and ready for harvesting, it’s time to reap your reward with some tasty fruit. The harvest months are exciting for gardeners, and it seems like every time you look at the tree, the fruit keeps getting bigger.
You can harvest your paw paws when they are easy to pluck from your tree. Don’t wait for the paw paws to fall to the ground. Overly ripe fruits taste funny, and you won’t enjoy them. The paw paw should feel somewhat firm but yield under the pressure of your finger on its skin.
After harvesting your paw paws, you can send them to cold storage for three to four days. Paw paws spoil quickly, which is one of the reasons why you rarely see them on shelves in grocery stores. We recommend picking them off the tree as you eat them. Some fresh paw paw and yogurt are a great way to start your day.