Until the recent frenzy that saw chefs clamouring to add pawpaws to their menus, the only time you may have heard of this sweet fruit (sometimes described as tasting like banana, guava and persimmon, all rolled into one creamy fruit) was in the lyrics of a traditional American folk song: “Pickin’ up pawpaws, puttin’ ’em in your pockets.”
But its culinary popularity is making pawpaw trees (Asimina triloba) the next big thing for backyard gardeners, too. Linda Grimo of Grimo Nut Nursery, in Ontario, thinks this native of Carolinian forests, which up until recently has been relatively unknown to Canadian gardeners, is an ideal tree for the urban landscape. Hardy to Zone 6, the pawpaw is a small tree with a beautiful, pear-shaped form and glossy, almost tropical-looking leaves. Although it can grow as tall as 20 feet (6 m), the upper branches taper to a narrow point, while the lower limbs spread only 6.5 to 10 feet (2 to 3 m), making it seem smaller than it is. Because it’s an understorey tree accustomed to growing beneath the protective canopy of the forest, it’s well suited to city or suburban gardens where buildings and other trees shelter it from the wind and direct sun. Pawpaws show little susceptibility to pests and disease, which also makes them a popular choice for organic gardeners.
To produce fruit, the purple, bell-shaped flowers need to be cross-pollinated (commonly by carrion flies and beetles), so ask the grower for genetically unrelated specimens. Plants can be spaced as close as five feet (1.5 m) apart. Grimo Nut Nursery ships dormant, bare-root trees in the spring, which is the best time to plant pawpaws. “This ensures they are in the ground at the ideal time and have a summer to put on growth and establish a strong root system,” Grimo says. Because their roots dry out easily, keep them wrapped until the planting hole is ready. When planting, spread out the roots and carefully backfill the hole so as not to compact the fragile roots.
Once in the ground, Grimo recommends leaving a two-foot (60-cm) circle of mulch around the base of the tree to suppress weeds and hold moisture in the soil. (Keep mulch away from the trunk to prevent rot and fungal disease.) Watering is dependent on the weather, she says, but in weeks where there’s no rainfall, water every three or four days for the first year; in the second year, water only during periods of drought that last more than nine days. After that, the tree should be able to survive on its own.
The fruits are chubby and slightly crescent-shaped, and begin to soften like a mango when ripe. It takes five to seven years for a tree to produce fruit, but most seedlings are two to three years when sold. So it won’t be long before you’ll be pickin’ up your own pawpaws and puttin’ ’em in — ice cream, mousse, puddings, fruit salads, or spooned fresh into your mouth.