Recent public interest in purchasing locally grown native fruits has drawn the interest of nutgrowers who are seeking alternative sources of income while their nut orchards mature. Tree spacings of 30’ X 30’ and up leave a great deal of open space in the young orchard that seemingly beg to be put to good use until the nut trees mature. The Pawpaw, Asimia triloba, is North America’s largest native fruit. It is found in all but the more northern counties of Missouri and occurs naturally from northern Florida to western New York, along the northern shores of Lake Ontario , through southern Michigan and southwestern Iowa and west to southeastern Nebraska, and eastern parts of Kansas, Oklahoma, and eastern Texas. It generally occurs as an understory tree on moist slopes and in good soils bordering streams. Because it naturally grows as an understory tree, it is thought that the early, better production in open settings might be reduced but still provide additional income in established nut orchards.
Fruit Or Wood?
The pawpaw fruit has a unique flavor, often described as custard texture with a mix of tropical banana, mango and pineapple. The flavor varies between trees. A small minority of people find the taste objectionable. The trees seldom grow large enough to produce a marketable wood.
General Production Notes:
Pawpaw are propagated from seed and grafted with scion wood or buds from desirable cultivars. Rooted stock is available from several commercial nurseries and private growers as well as from the Missouri Department of Conservation nursery. Grafted stock is also available but the supply is limited. Seeds must not be allowed to freeze or dry out. It requires stratification in order to germinate and typically sprout in mid-summer. Pawpaws grow best in a fertile, moist, well-drained soil. They have a brittle tap root and transplanting can be problematic although there are anecdotal reports of high survival rates from 3rd year dormant bare root stock. Transplants require a steady supply of moisture at least during their first year of planting. Young trees should be protected from full sun during the first year or two in the orchard. Because they have large leaves, pawpaws should be grown where they have some protection from the wind. While it’s not difficult to grow pawpaws, it does require an extended period of time to produce the stock.
Plants are set 4-5 feet apart in the row. Since earliest production is likely to be five years in the future and the plants may remain in the orchard for an extended time, planting within the existing rows is probably the best option. Pawpaws will sucker, forming patches with a single genetic identity. Fruit is borne on old growth. The flowers are produced early in the spring and pollinated by carrion flies. The plants are not self fruitful; if there are no local trees it will be necessary to plant a second cultivar to insure fertilization. Production is highest on trees growing in full sunlight. Pawpaws have few significant insect pests; the most common is the caterpillar of the zebra swallowtail butterfly. The pawpaw peduncle borer, a small moth larva, burrows into the fleshy tissues of the flower, causing it to wither and drop. Deer will not feed on the leaves but may rub young trunks and eat fallen fruit. The fruit is also eaten by raccoons, opossums, and other wildlife.
Cultivars are selected to optimize size of fruit and flavor and minimize the number of seeds.
Harvest Equipment Needs:
Pruning shears, food-quality containers, and hand laborers will suffice. Fruit is extremely perishable and should be chilled immediately. Harvest is typically over a three week period in August/September.
Most pawpaws are marketed fresh as novelty fruit at a local farmer’s market. Commercial retail outlets are seldom interested in handling such a perishable crop. The pulp can be frozen and processed later. It is also used to produce a novelty wine. There is little known about expected yields and considerable time must be invested before you can expect a crop.
We are not aware of any commercial operations for fruit. It may be possible to sell scion wood from cultivars that have not been trademarked to nurseries. Some individuals have adverse reactions to consuming pawpaw fruit. When processing pulp, take care to exclude both skin and fragments of seed or seed coats. Several growers in Michigan consumed dehydrated pawpaw pulp and experienced severe gastric disturbance. They recovered in 24 hours with no lingering ill effects. The exact reasons for such responses aren't known and individuals seem to vary in their ability to consume the fruit. This caution is rarely seen, even in Extension bulletins or natural history accounts. We will update this information as we get details from those researching the topic.
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