The Plant Native

Pawpaw Tree

Highlights

Why are Pawpaw trees not everywhere? These trees make North America’s largest edible fruit! The fruit has the consistency and shape of a mango and tastes like a pineapple crossed with a banana. They are also stunning year-round. In the spring, Pawpaws flower with dramatic dark blossoms that look like Tim Burton movie props. In the fall, what was once flowers turns into edible fruit as the leaves turn bright yellow. You’ll need to plant two for fruit—scroll on more planting tips.

Part Sun – Shade
20-30′ tall
Host plant
Asimina triloba
Pawpaw flowers hang like little bells from branches in the spring

Dig Deeper

Explore the history, types, and where to plant native Pawpaw trees

Table of Contents

What are benefits of planting a Pawpaw tree?

The Pawpaw tree has grown in North America for thousands of years. Any plant or tree that has existed in an area for this long is considered a native plant. Every storm, drought, flood, blizzard, and normal sunny day in their region they have lived through. Native plants are made to thrive in their home areas. 

Planting native plants and trees—like the Pawpaw—is important for many reasons, including:

  • Native plants give butterflies, pollinators, and birds the food and homes they need to survive. The Pawpaw tree is the host plant for the stunning zebra swallowtail butterfly (more on this, below!)
  • Native plants are made to thrive in their home areas; once they are established, all they need is rain to thrive
  • Native plants are gorgeous! Explore our native library to be awed by their flowers, leaves, and names
The Pawpaw's native range is huge!

Where are Pawpaw trees native?

The Pawpaw is native to a huge swath of the United States, including the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, and the South.

Where did the name Pawpaw come from?

According to botanist José Hormaza, the name comes from the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto’s 15th-century expedition team:

“Apparently, the name pawpaw was given to the tree by members of the de Soto expedition for its resemblance to the fruits of the tropical fruit papaya that they already knew, papaya being a Spanish word derived from the Taíno word papaina.” (Source)

The Taíno were a historic indigenous people of the Carribean—their word for papaya fruits was papaina. And then European colonists took that name and applied it to what they found thousands of miles away in North America. And centuries of usage changed papaina to pawpaw.

What an American name—something that combines indigenous language with colonialism, alongside a game of telephone over the centuries. 

Pawpaw fruit has been eaten for thousands of years

The history of the Pawpaw is fascinating. Pawpaw seeds and other remnants have been found at archaeological sites of the earliest Native Americans. While the fruit and tree may be lesser known today, this plant has been crucial to North American survival.

Pawpaw trees are the host plant for the zebra swallowtail butterfly

Pawpaw trees are the host plant for the zebra swallowtail butterfly

Zebra swallowtail butterflies only lay their eggs on Pawpaw trees. As seen above, you absolutely want to be a part of keeping this magnificent creature alive. This monogamous butterfly-and-plant relationship makes the Pawpaw the host plant for zebra swallowtails.

Said simply, without Pawpaw trees, there will be no zebra swallowtail butterflies. (If you are feeling like The Very Hungry Caterpillar got us all off on the wrong foot since kindergarten thinking caterpillars ate all leaves…well, we agree with you. Here’s a short overview on host plants.)

Pawpaw trees through the seasons

As the seasons change, the Pawpaw tree transforms like a chameleon. Here is a quick overview on what to expect, starting in the spring:

Pawpaw trees in the spring

Pawpaw trees’ flowers are unlike anything else in the garden. Their dark crimson blooms look like Gothic sculptures. 

Pawpaw trees in the summer

In the summer, Pawpaw trees’ green canopy provides shade as the flowers drop and fruits grow. 

Summer is for zebra swallowtails

Once the leaves appear, it’s time for zebra swallowtail caterpillars. Watch for them snacking and building their cocoons in the summer and early fall.

Pawpaw trees in the fall

In the fall, the fruits ripen and the leaves turn a buttery yellow. Fruit peaks in September and October. As winter begins, the leaves fall and the tree takes a nap, until it’s time to put out its crimson blooms again in the spring.

What does Pawpaw fruit taste like?

At first glance, you would imagine it tasted like mango because of its shape and coloring. Although the fleshy fruit texture is mango-like, the flavor is more of a cross between a banana and a pineapple. You cannot believe that something so tropical-tasting can come from places in North America that routinely experience blizzards.

Pawpaw fruit, ripe and ready for snacking

Where are good places to plant Pawpaw trees?

The Pawpaw prefers moist, well-drained soil and partial shade (stay away from full, blasting sun). This is because Pawpaws are understory trees, which are smaller trees that grow beneath larger native behemoth trees like Tulip Poplars. Think of them like petite trees that snuggle up next to their big brothers and sisters in the forest for protection; they need a little shade.

If you want fruit (and who doesn’t?), you’ll need to plant two

Pawpaw trees need cross-pollination to bear fruit, which means you’ll need to plant at least two trees.

How to plant Pawpaw trees

Planting trees is so easy! You can absolutely do it yourself, no landscaper needed. All you need is a shovel, a bag of compost, and the hose. That’s it! Here’s how to plant your Pawpaw: 

  1. Find a healthy Pawpaw sapling from a reputable nursery
  2. Dig a hole twice as wide and deep as the root ball
  3. Mix some compost into the soil you’ve just removed and put some back into the hole
  4. Place your tree in the hole, adding soil until the stem starts at ground level (you may need to remove the tree and add more dirt until it’s right)
  5. Backfill the hole, gently firming the soil around the roots with your feet
  6. Add a layer of mulch to retain moisture; arrange the mulch so it makes a little bowl around the tree’s stem (make sure the mulch does NOT touch the stem)
  7. Time to water! Give it a deep soak; the goal is to soak the roots
  8. Keep an eye on your tree, watering it regularly during its first year, and be patient as it establishes itself

What to plant with Pawpaw trees

There are so many native plants that look gorgeous and pair nicely with Pawpaw trees. Some favorites include:

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Hackberry

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Ninebark

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Serviceberry

A white Sweetbay Magnolia flower blooming, photographed growing on a branch of the Sweetbay Magnolia tree.

Sweetbay Magnolia

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Tulip Poplar

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Winterberry

Congratulations! You’re ready to get planting a few native Pawpaw trees. With its ever-changing beauty, delicious fruit, and zebra swallowtail nursery abilities, this tree helps turn your garden into a fruit-filled oasis. Gardening doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Planting native is much less work than lawns or non-native gardening. May Pawpaw trees become cherished and tasty additions to your outdoor space. Happy planting!

UPDATED —
04/01/2024
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