Pawpaw Asimina triloba is a lovely little understory tree I would not be without. I first discovered it in my oak woods, happily naturalized and looking like something a bit more tropical than belonged there. Soon I fell in love with its bright green, large, drooping leaves that caught the light and glowed on moonlit nights.
I feel that this tree has been overlooked as an ornamental landscape tree which may be used to create a beautiful and wildlife friendly yard. While it is cultivated as a crop fruit it may be planted in a residential simply as an attractive tree while being a food source for visiting critters. The fruit can be eaten by opossum, raccoon, squirrels or foxes while the leaves are a host plant for the beautiful Zebra Swallowtail butterfly.
For ornamental value, Pawpaw Asimina triloba provides large, unique leaves, a small size perfect for accent trees, itcan tolerate shade, wonderful bright green foliage in summer and outstanding yellow fall color. It is easy to grow and relatively pest and disease free and can be drought tolerant or grown in wet conditions.
Pawpaw Asimina triloba is small deciduous, understory tree or large shrub native to the southeast United States (USDA Plant Profile). It will typically grows15-20′ tall and sometimes to 30′. It can be trained into a multi single or trunk tree, or left to form colonies and thickets.
In early spring from April – May, small, cup shaped flowers appear. They are not showy or of note but what is of note is that they are not self pollinating. They are also self incompatible and often require pollen from a genetically different tree for fertilization to occur. It is my understanding that they can set fruit to a degree but pollination will provide a much larger crop. I have never had an issue with this since I have a number of separate trees growing throughout my woods, but you will need to find two for the job.
Pawpaw is also not pollinated by bees but instead by carrion flies and beetles and as nature tends to do, the flower reflects this. It is a downward shaped cup which is meat colored and not the greatest smelling flower of all time. The blooms are small and the scent isn’t strong, you would have to get right up to a bloom to smell one. You also will not have a plant loaded with carrion flies and beetles. These bugs are notoriously unreliable in the early spring, enough so that most farmers will hand pollinate pawpaw to guarantee a good crop. In a yard setting it is doubtful that the flowers and pollination process would be noticeable unless you were looking.
Then comes the part which is noteworthy. The gorgeous foliage. The leaves are large (6″ – 12″), elliptical and slightly drooping. The color is a light to medium green and they have a slight smell of fresh green peppers when crushed. The long, downward give the tree a very gentle look overall and can add texture to a landscape design. The fall color is outstanding as the pawpaw turn a bright yellow . The tree will hold on to the leaves for an extended period during the autumn, bringing even more value to the ornamental landscape.
Pawpaw will also attract Zebra Swallowtail butterfly to your garden as genus Asimina is the only plant the larvae feeds from. Even if you don’t plant it for the fruit, plant one for these beauties.
If a plant sets fruit, in fall oblong, yellowish green fruits will appear and change to a dark brown as they mature. They are sweet flavored and fleshy, resembling bananas. If you don’t harvest them yourself they will be readily eaten by small mammals and birds.
Pawpaw Asimina triloba is easy to grow in moist, acidic, fertile soil in full sun to part shade. It will sucker less in drier conditions and will survive drought without severely damaging the tree. Mine are growing as an understory plant in very dry oak woods where they thrive. In sun it will grow a fuller crown with denser leaves and branching. Pawpaw may be effectively used in a woodland setting, as a small accent tree or along creek and pond edges.
Pawpaw is not difficult to locate within the nursery trade however there are several European cultivars on the market. To plant native, you must do a little research to make certain you are selecting the right tree. Another native pawpaw is A. parviflora, which is small flowered pawpaw, dwarf pawpaw or possum-simmon (USDA Plant Profile). For both wildlife and ornamental value, pawpaw is a great choice as a small tree in a residential landscape.
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