The Pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba) is the native of the month for September here at Wellfield Botanic Gardens. Pawpaw trees are native to most of eastern North America. This species of tree gets to be only 15-20 feet tall, making this a rather small understory tree. Recent studies have found pawpaw trees are expanding their habitat and are moving from well drained lowland areas to drier upland forests. Pawpaw trees are browse resistant, with deer finding their leaves unpalatable, which leaves saplings to continue to grow. The trees’ hardiness zone ranges from 5-8, and they do well in slightly acidic and well drained soils. The flowers on the pawpaw tree are a dark burgundy color, appearing between April and May with fruit blooming in September.
This species of tree is a member of the Annonaceae family, which contains custard apples, which categorizes the pawpaw fruit. The average pawpaw tree takes 10 years to mature and produce fruit. Animals of all sorts appreciate the fruit this tree produces, including possums, squirrels and raccoons. Zebra swallowtails tend to use this fruit as a host plant for its larvae. This fruit as mentioned is part of the custard apple family, with people saying the texture is much like custard with the taste of banana, mango and some citrus. The fruit from the pawpaw is the largest edible native fruit of North America. Pawpaw trees have an extensive underground root system, with neighboring pawpaw trees most likely being from the same plant. These trees tend to grow in groups and require pollination from a different tree that does not belong to the same plant. Male and female parts of the plant do not mature at the same time, resulting in the need of cross pollination through insects.
Pawpaw trees are a lesser known native to our area of Elkhart, Indiana and the greater region of eastern North America. This understory tree is an eye-catching plant in the spring and summer with its downward facing flowers and in the fall with its unique fruits. Here at Wellfield Botanic Gardens, we hope to showcase the importance of native species on the ecosystem with this series of the native plant of the month. Watch out for next month’s featured plant and in the meantime, visit Wellfield and find a pawpaw tree in time to see some of its distinct fruit!