This helpful step-by-step guide, How To Grow Pawpaw Trees, will teach you how to produce your own pawpaw fruit, starting from seed or sapling.
An introduction to pawpaws, America’s largest and most delicious native fruit
When we encountered our first pawpaws years back, we couldn’t believe our eyes or taste buds… Here was a mango-sized, native fruit we’d never even heard of that had an exceptional tropical flavor like banana-mango-cream custard. Was this amazing fruit being hidden from the world as part of a vast conspiracy?
Nope. As it turns out, pawpaws were enormously popular up until the mid 20th century. They simply fell out of favor because they don’t ship well or store very long after picking, becoming obsolete with the introduction of large grocery store chains.
However, breeding work is being done to alleviate these “problems” for commercial orchardists. For home gardeners or smaller farmers selling directly to restaurants or farmers markets, these problems actually aren’t problems at all…
Gardeners can harvest, eat, or process their pawpaw fruit soon after ripening. For local farmers, the relative unavailability of pawpaw fruit at a commercial scale can give you a competitive advantage in the marketplace if you’re the only local provider of this delicious, tropical-flavored fruit.
How to grow pawpaw trees: a step-by-step guide
We started growing pawpaws about a decade ago. We currently have 10+ pawpaw trees planted in our food forest, all of which were either started from seed or grown out from one year old saplings.
Each year, our pawpaw trees grow larger, yielding ever greater quantities of delicious pawpaw fruit. Last summer was the first time we ever had more pawpaw fruits than we could possibly eat fresh, which falls into the “good problem” category.
Below is a step-by-step guide showing you how to grow pawpaw trees based on our personal experience combined with collecting tips from other experts.
Step 1: Selecting Pawpaw Seeds, Saplings, and Varietals
You can grow pawpaws one of two ways:
Option 1: Start your pawpaws from seeds
- Pros: least expensive method; with the seeds from a few pawpaw fruits, you can start dozens of trees;
- Cons: you won’t necessarily get a cultivar that’s exactly true to the parent, but you’ll still get a great fruit; also, starting from seed will add 1 year to your wait time for getting fruit.
Option 2: Buy young pawpaw saplings
- Pros: you can select the exact cultivars you want from a breeder and get fruit more quickly;
- Cons: more expensive.
No matter how you choose to grow your pawpaws, note that you’ll need at least two genetically distinct trees growing in close proximity in order to get fruit. Pawpaw trees are typically NOT self-fertile, so a single pawpaw tree will not set fruit. (Note: Some bred pawpaw varieties are supposed to be self-fertile.)
Can you dig up and transplant wild pawpaw saplings?
When foraging for morel mushrooms in early spring, we often encounter flood plains full of pawpaw trees just starting to flower.
While it’s tempting to try to dig up a few of the younger pawpaw pawpaw saplings to plant in our yard, the reality is that our efforts would likely end up killing the tree.
A single pawpaw tree puts off lots of runners, so wild patches are often clonal colonies extending from the same parent plant. Digging them up will cause more damage to the feeder root than the runner plant can sustain for successful transplantation.
If you find a first or second year pawpaw sapling in the wild that grew from seed, you may be able to successfully transplant it.
Option 1: Starting Pawpaw Trees From Seeds
The most affordable way to grow pawpaw trees is from seed. We’ve started the majority of our pawpaw trees from seed, and it’s quite easy.
1. Get pawpaw seeds – In the late summer when pawpaw fruit is ripe, try to find fruit at a local farmers market. Then, remove and set aside the largest seeds from the largest, best-tasting pawpaw fruit when you’re eating them.
Do NOT store the seeds indoors for more than a couple weeks or let the seeds dry out. The seeds will only remain viable for a short period of time once dried.
2. Plant pawpaw seeds in nursery pots – Put damp potting soil (we recommend FoxFarm potting soil) into a small one gallon nursery pot and plunk up to 5 seeds in each pot, about 1″ deep. (You can also use smaller containers with one pawpaw seed per container.)
We put multiple seeds into a single large container so we don’t have to keep track of lots of little containers. Then we separate the saplings out into individual pots during the fall/winter after their first year of growth.
3. Mulch and overwinter – Put about 1″ of wood chip mulch on the soil surface, then leave the container outside to overwinter. Pawpaw seeds need cold stratification (freezing temps) to germinate. In early spring the pawpaw seeds will germinate and you’ll see young sprouts pop through the mulch.
We haven’t measured our exact germination rates on our pawpaw seeds taken from fresh fruit and sown immediately, but our estimate would be about 80%+ of our seeds germinate.
Option 2: Buying young pawpaw saplings and selecting pawpaw varietals
There are now dozens of cultivated pawpaw varieties, and lots of breeding work is being done by universities and private breeders alike.
In our experience, there’s no such thing as a bad pawpaw — all taste amazing. If you’re going to buy saplings, it might be best to select the cultivars with the largest fruit size since this can make it easier to process them post-harvest.
Where can you buy pawpaw trees? Check with your local plant nurseries or universities. You can also google “pawpaw nurseries” to find online retailers, or buy 1-gallon pawpaw saplings through nurseries on Amazon.
Step 2: Site Selection for Young Pawpaw Trees
Once you have your pawpaw saplings (from seed or purchased plant), it’s easiest to keep them growing in containers IN FULL TO PART SHADE for the first 1-3 years, or until they reach about 3′ tall.
Why full shade – part shade?
In the wild, pawpaw trees are adapted to starting their lives as understory plants, growing in the shaded canopy of larger trees. Only when they’re older and/or when a larger tree dies opening up a hole in the canopy, will a pawpaw tree get direct sunlight and grow to its full height and fruiting potential.
If you decide to plant your young pawpaw saplings in a full sun spot, they’ll die from overexposure to sun. You can plant them in full sun IF you put a cage with shade cloth around it. However, we think it’s easier just to keep pawpaws growing in containers until they reach about 3′ tall (around year 3), at which point we transplant them to their final full-sun spot.
To keep your young pawpaw trees from getting rootbound in their containers, “pot them up” to larger pots with new organic potting soil each fall until you transplant them.
Step 3: Pawpaw Transplanting & Site Selection
Full sun: Once your pawpaws have reached 3′ tall, it’s time to transplant them into their final, full-sun location.
When to transplant: The two best times of year to transplant your pawpaw trees into their final location are:
- fall – after they’ve gone dormant and dropped their leaves, or
- spring – before they break dormancy.
Multiple plants for pollination: As mentioned earlier, pawpaw flowers are typically NOT self-fertile, so you’ll need to plant at least two, genetically distinct pawpaw trees close together for fruit production. A single pawpaw tree in isolation will not bear fruit.
Spacing: Plant each pawpaw tree anywhere from 6-12 feet apart.
Soil Prep: Pawpaws grow in low floodplains and bottomland areas with rich, fertile soil, that’s high in organic matter. As a late succession plant, they prefer fungally-dominated soil.
It always surprises us when we see pawpaws being grown in bare soil, as we did recently at a research farm where they told us that their pawpaws “don’t set much fruit.” This practice diminishes the nutrient- and moisture-holding capacity of the soil. It also selects for bacterially-dominated soil and makes it very difficult for late-succession soil ecology (dominated by mycorrhizae fungi) to flourish.
When preparing your pawpaw site, mix in high quality compost or worm castings with your native soil in the hole. Ratio should be about 30% compost to 70% native soil. If you have heavy or compacted soil and you fill a hole with 100% compost, your pawpaws can actually get rootbound in their planting hole (same is true for other perennial trees you plant).
Next, put 3-4″ of compost/worm castings in a 3′ diameter around the tree. Then cover the whole area with 3-6″ of wood chips/mulch.
Be careful not to pile the mulch against the stem of the tree as this can cause the trunk to rot, killing the tree.
In addition to building the type of rich, biologically active soil that pawpaws thrive in, the mulch will help provide good habitat for the native flies that pollinate your pawpaw flowers (pawpaws are not pollinated by bees).
Healthier pawpaw plants + more pollinators = improved fruit set.
Step 4: Pawpaw Tree Maintenance
Relative to other fruit trees we grow, pawpaws are very low maintenance.
Pruning: Only prune branches that cross over or rub against each other. Otherwise, let them be.
Under ideal conditions, mature pawpaw trees can reach 30′ or more in height, producing boxes full of fruit.
Irrigation: Since pawpaws are accustomed to growing in low-lying flood plains and bottom lands, they like moist (not wet) soil. The first summer after you transplant your pawpaw tree, make sure it gets about 1″ of water per week, whether from rain or irrigation.
As your pawpaw trees mature, they might not need irrigation unless you have prolonged droughts and/or extreme heat that might stress the plants, causing fruit drop.
Soil/fertility maintenance: Every spring, add 2-3″ of high quality compost or seasoned manure in a wide circle around your pawpaw tree, followed by another 3-6″ of wood chips. Let the tree roots and their symbiotic microbial partners do the rest of the work for you.
Suckers: Remember above where we mentioned finding large clonal colonies of pawpaw trees in the woods? Well, your pawpaw trees will try to do the same thing in your yard.
When you see pawpaw runners coming up, you have two options: leave them if you like where they are, or pull them out.
Pests & diseases: Perhaps due to the fact that they’re native plants, pawpaws are incredibly disease and pest-resistant – especially if you keep them healthy.
During years when Japanese beetles are abundant, they will do some leaf damage to our trees, but not enough for us to bother intervening. The beetles seem to much prefer our grape leaves and anything in the stone fruit family.
Please grow your pawpaw trees without using synthetic insecticides or other pesticides since pawpaws are the exclusive larval host plant for the gorgeous Zebra Swallowtail butterfly (Eurytides marcellus). There again, the majority of the butterfly caterpillars will be eaten by birds and other predators. The few remaining caterpillars won’t do enough leaf damage to warrant intervention.
Step 5: Harvesting
Years to harvest: How many years does it take to grow a pawpaw tree from seed to fruit? Your pawpaw trees may produce their first fruit in their fourth year under ideal conditions. However, it’s more likely to be year 5-6.
Pawpaw flower pollination: The first year our pawpaw trees flowered, we saw few flies visit the flowers. To compensate and ensure we got fruit, we went from flower-to-flower, tree-to-tree with q-tips.
The second year our trees flowered, the number of flies pollinating our pawpaw flowers had grown exponentially. The third year, even more flies.
We don’t know the exact species of fly that pollinates pawpaws or whether it/they only comes out once per year while pawpaws are flowering, similar to the Southeastern blueberry bee (Habropoda laboriosa) and blueberry flowers. What we do know is that we didn’t bring the flies to our pawpaw trees — they just showed up and flourished.
If you do your best to mirror the specific ecosystems in which a plant grows best (in the case of pawpaws, lowland forests) nature seems to somehow figure things out for you. Your job is to cultivate knowledge and trust.
Ripe pawpaw fruit: When does pawpaw fruit ripen? In the late summer. We usually get our first fruit during the last days of August and our last fruit around mid-September.
How can you tell if pawpaw fruit is ripe? It tells you. Perfectly ripe pawpaws soften and fall off the tree.
If the fruit is so close to falling off, it breaks off with a gentle shake of the tree, it’s fair game. However, if you have to use any force to remove the fruit from the tree, it’s not at peak ripeness and it won’t taste good.
If you pick an unripe pawpaw fruit early, it just won’t develop as good a flavor as one left on the tree until peak ripeness.
Pawpaw fruit thieves: Ripe pawpaw fruit are extremely fragrant, so they do attract fruit-eating wildlife, racoons, skunks, possums, and squirrels in our area. We’ve also seen a mocking bird take a few jabs at a ripe pawpaw fruit.
To help prevent pawpaw fruit theft, make a habit of harvesting your ripe fruit each afternoon or evening. In our experience, a ripe pawpaw fruit laying on the ground overnight is unlikely to be whole the next morning.
Shelf-life: How long will a pawpaw fruit last? About 3-5 days on the kitchen counter at room temperature. If you bag them and put them in the refrigerator immediately after harvest, they can last for up to 2-3 weeks.
Processing extra pawpaw fruit: If you’re fortunate enough to have more pawpaws than you can possibly eat fresh, you’ll be glad to know that pawpaw fruit freezes very well and maintains its delicious flavor.
To learn how to quickly process and freeze your pawpaw fruit for long-term storage, read our article How to Eat and Process Pawpaw Fruit.
We hope this article helps you grow healthy pawpaw trees and enjoy these delicious native fruits for many years to come!