There are some locally grown fruits that you simply can’t get at the grocery store because they’re too soft to travel. Pawpaws are one example. These are the largest native fruits in the United States, but you won’t find any to eat unless you forage them on a river bank, know someone at your farmers market who’s growing them or grow them yourself.
And you may well want to grow them yourself. The ripe, palm-size fruit tastes like a cross between mangoes and bananas. Harvest season is through the height of summer, which is when sitting in deep shade and eating a cool, custard-like fruit is most appealing.
As edible plants go, a pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is a rather odd duck. Unlike the modest leaves of peaches, apples, juneberries and other fruiting trees, pawpaw leaves have a long, languid tropical look. They remind me of deciduous magnolias. Despite leaves that evoke the Amazon, pawpaws can stand the cold winters of Ohio, where they’re surprisingly more common than in many counties in the subtropical southeast. Their nickname—“Michigan banana”—may also tell you something. They thrive in hardiness zones 5 through 8 in areas with plenty of rainfall.
Pawpaws evolved on creek banks, so they can take deep shade and wet feet. In full shade, they’ll rarely flower but will instead reproduce from root suckers that help hold those creek banks. Surprisingly, they grow and produce prolifically on sunny, dry sites. But it’s best to shelter the saplings with shade cloth for the first couple of years to help them get established.
Unlike many fruiting plants, they bear no kinship to the rose family, so the flowers are unusual, too. The small, silky, flared flower petals are a lovely, deep maroon with bright stamens. The flowers hang straight down and have a rank smell that attracts flies as pollinators rather than bees.
You’ll get the best flavor and better production if you have at least two cultivated varieties to cross-pollinate.
“[Pawpaw] must be cross-pollinated with a seedling or another variety and it’s often helpful to pretend to be an insect and hand pollinate for highest yields,” says Chuck Marsh, founder of Useful Plant Nursery in the North Carolina mountains.
Some say the Shenandoah and Susquehanna varieties are the biggest and best-flavored pawpaws with the fewest seeds, while others like the flavor of a variety called Mango. Those who want to extend the lateness of the season should choose Sunflower. I’ve tasted over a dozen varieties at pawpaw festivals and don’t have a clear favorite: They all taste good enough to grow at home.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of Hobby Farms.