Pawpaws easy to grow, even in the Midwest
One fruit that people rarely ask me about is one of the few that are native to Kansas: the pawpaw.
Since they grow here naturally, pawpaw trees already know how to handle the heat and humidity of Kansas summers and fluctuations in winter temperatures. Pawpaws also have few insect and disease problems.
Even though their forest locations are almost as secretive as the favorite spots of morel mushroom hunters, you can grow pawpaws easily in your own backyard. In Missouri, Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky, pawpaw orchards are popping up, and producers are selling everything from ice cream to beer flavored with the fruit.
Pawpaws ripen from late August through early October and are available at area farmers markets. The best time to plant pawpaw trees is in late fall or early spring.
Pawpaw fruit is usually green- to yellow-skinned with white, yellow or orange flesh. They are 2 to 4 inches long and shaped like a bean or egg. The flavor is most often described as a combination of mango and banana.
Charlie NovoGradac, owner of Chestnut Charlie’s Organic Tree Crops, has planted a few pawpaw trees in his orchard to see how they grow. He is not selling any just yet — his trees are only producing about as many as he likes to eat.
“I planted two pawpaws in ’95 when I first came here,” says NovoGradac, reminding me that you need more than one tree for optimum pollination and fruit production.
NovoGradac has mostly planted seedlings, which come from the nursery looking like little sticks and take a few years to grow into something that can produce fruit. The fruit size and flavor vary on seedlings. More than 60 named varieties (grafted cultivars) of pawpaws are also available, a few of which were discovered in Kansas.
“I’ve had some problems with voles,” NovoGradac says. Voles tunnel underground, leaving roots exposed, and sometimes the small rodents kill trees by chewing on the trunks in winter. Voles are problematic in many orchards.
The only other major concern with pawpaws is their tendency to sucker.
“They send up trees from the roots. If you let a pawpaw tree go in nature, that’s what you’ll find: a whole grove that is interconnected,” says NovoGradac. “Mowing around them controls the suckers pretty easily, though.”
If you want to plant pawpaw trees, they will grow in sun or shade but will produce the best in full sun. Trunks of young trees should be protected from sunscald with tree wraps or commercially available tree shelters that are shaped like tubes.
Nitrogen fertilizer (from organic or conventional sources) will increase growth and production when applied each spring.
Pawpaw flowers are pollinated by various species of flies and beetles instead of bees. To attract flies, the flowers produce a smell that is not always considered to be the most pleasant, but it only lasts for a short period of time. Some production guides recommend hand-pollinating using a small artists’ brush to transfer pollen, because flies and beetles are sometimes considered to be unreliable in the pollinating abilities.
Wondering how to enjoy pawpaw fruit? Take it from NovoGradac:
“I just cut them in half and eat them with a spoon. Then I save the seeds to plant more trees.”
NovoGradac says he’s interested in planting more pawpaw trees wherever he has open space in his orchard. Since pawpaws and chestnuts ripen around the same time, it’s a good fit for his operation.
Pawpaws are also favorites of deer and other wildlife, so finding them in the woods this time of year is sometimes difficult.
— Jennifer Smith is the Horticulture Extension Agent for K-State Research and Extension in Douglas County. Contact her or an Extension Master Gardener at 843-7058.