With the outward look of a mango and the tropical taste of a banana, native pawpaws may seem as if they belong in more tropical regions. However, pawpaws have a range covering much of the southeastern United States, including West Virginia.
Pawpaws belong to the custard apple family, which is more widespread in the tropics. Yet, pawpaws are adapted to the more temperate climate of the Appalachian Mountains and surrounding areas.
Pawpaws generally grow as an understory tree but produce best in full sun. However, seedlings will not survive full sunlight as the shoots are extremely sensitive to sunlight. For the first two years, provide shade and keep the young tree well-watered.
Pawpaws bloom in early spring and are a dark burgundy color. Flowers of the pawpaw are pollinated by flies, rather than bees or butterflies. Most cultivars are believed to be self-incompatible. This means that cross-pollination of different cultivars needs to occur for fruit to set.
Pawpaws can be grown from seed or can be purchased as transplants of cultivated varieties. When growing pawpaws from seed, they will need to undergo a cold treatment, also called stratification. Seeds can be stratified by placing them in a cool, moist environment for 80 to 100 days. Seeds can then be moved to a warmer location to germinate in potting soil. Transplants do best when grown in a pot and then transplanted, rather than bare-root transplants.
The fruit of a pawpaw can be described as having a mango, banana or pineapple taste – hence the nickname, West Virginia Banana. It is deep yellow in color with a creamy flesh. The fruit is very nutritious. In West Virginia, pawpaws ripen in August through September. While its light green skin color is one indicator, the best way to determine if a fruit is ripe is to gently squeeze it. If it feels soft, then it is ready to pick.
By Jennifer Friend, WVU Extension Agent – Harrison County