THE hoosier Banana…
Pawpaw’s (Asimina triloba) is one of the few fruits indigenous to North America, and the largest one. It is found in 25 states in the southern and midwestern U.S., including Indiana, although much of its original habitat has been destroyed. It is naturally found as an understory tree in well-drained bottomland and hilly upland habitats, but can be successfully grown under most Indiana conditions.
Pawpaws appear as large shrubs or small trees, growing 25’-35’ tall. Their leaves are large and oblong, medium green turning rusty yellow in autumn before dropping. Fruits appear in clusters and range from 2” to 6” in length, with inedible green exteriors and creamy to golden yellow edible pulp containing two rows of large, brown seeds. Maroon-colored flowers preceding the fruits are 1”-2” in diameter, appearing in clusters with a fetid aroma. The fruit, which has a banana-like texture and tropical flavor, ripens in mid-August through October. Pawpaw fruits are somewhat similar in appearance to papayas, although the two plants are not related.
Many species of wildlife are attracted to the fruit, and zebra swallowtail larvae feed on the leaves but are not considered a significant pest. Chemicals in the leaves make both the larvae and butterflies unpalatable to predators. The plants are not attractive to deer. The twigs and bark contain chemical compounds called annonaceous acetagenins, which are used in botanical pesticides and the development of cancer-fighting drugs. Pawpaw trees are well-suited for residential edible landscapes.
In sunny locations, pawpaw trees will have straight trunks and a pyramidal habit. In shadier ones, they will have an open branching habit and often spread by suckering. These suckers are difficult to transplant, due to a long taproot with very few feeder roots. Best fruit production occurs in full sun. Protection from wind is also helpful. Preferred soil is rich and loamy, with a pH of 5.5 to 7.0 (slightly acidic). Trees are easy to maintain, and generally start to bear fruit at 7 to 10 years of age, or when 6’ tall. Young trees benefit from mulching and shading until they are 36” tall or 3 years old. Pawpaw trees are especially drought sensitive when young.
Pawpaw fruits were common in the early 20th century, and many old cookbooks have recipes for the aromatic pulp. They are considered an uncommon delicacy now, because the fruits bruise easily and are not suitable for shipping. They also ripen quickly and have a short shelf life unless turned to pulp (which can be frozen). Kentucky State University has the only full-time pawpaw research program in the world, and their website contains recipes, descriptions, and a vast amount of information. Trial gardens, open to the public, are on the KSU campus in Frankfort, KY.
Pawpaws are not self-pollinating; two or more trees should be planted and spaced 15’ to 25’ apart. If using named cultivars, plant two different ones.Seedlings grown from the wild will yield fruit with varying degrees of size and quality.Named cultivars, which are often grafted, will be more reliable producers of tasty fruit but are difficult to obtain. Many cultivars have been developed, but few are available.