The article Fred Paillet presented about pawpaws should be required reading for every Ozark Society member. My estimate is that 95% of the population would not be able to identify this tree, and perhaps 99.99% have never had the pleasure of tasting the fruit. It’s time for a change. It’s time to grow your own and share the bounty.
I had my first taste of a pawpaw on a hike down in the bowels of the West Prong of the Mountain Fork of the Mulberry River about 1988. I was with Dr. Compton, and others, searching for virgin timber on a warm September day. We turned to go up Wellcave Hollow when Dr. Compton pointed out lots of pawpaws on the forest floor. Being new to the Ozarks and never having seen a Pawpaw before, I picked one up for a taste. What a pleasant surprise on a September day, especially when you are thirsty. What did I just taste? Mango? Banana? Peach? From that point on I was hooked on pawpaws.
Later I found out that Dr. Compton had a grove of pawpaws growing on his property and he suggested I take a few and plant them at my house. Those young transplants did not make it. Over the years I tried a number of times to dig up young pawpaws and transplant them. None of them survived.
In about 1995 on the way to the Fall Ozark Society meeting at Petit Jean State Park, I stopped off at the Cherry Bend Trailhead and picked up bags of pawpaws to share with Ozark members at Petit Jean. Surprisingly, no one wanted them. I decided to ‘plant them’ and went to the rim of the canyon and threw most of them over the ledge. I wonder if any grew. I did keep a few and scattered the seeds into the woods around our house. Ten years later I found one growing, and today it is a producing tree. Yes, it can take them that long to germinate! Since then I have learned a lot about pawpaws and learned to speed up the process. For those who want a quick identification, hickory and pawpaw leaves look almost identical. The difference is hickory leaves join the stem at the same point. Pawpaw leaves have about a ¾” offset.
As Fred mentioned in his article, they do grow by sending out runners (clones). One year, Darrel Boles, another Sugar Creek chapter member, picked out a 5’ foot sapling from his grove and dug it up for me with his backhoe tractor. The root was almost non-existent. The ‘root’ consisted of an underground runner about the thickness of a pencil which had sent up a shoot to become a tree. It did not survive the transplanting process. When I discovered my lone pawpaw growing from the seeds, I had thrown out ten years earlier, I realized that the best method would be to grow them from seed. It is not an easy process; however, the young seedlings are tough little seedlings.
Through trial and error, and checking the internet, this is what I have learned.
- Keep your seeds moist. Don’t let them dry out.
- Scarify: Sand or scrape the coating to allow moisture to penetrate.
- Stratify: Place them in a cool down (40 degrees?) for a minimum of 60 days; some sources say 100 days. I just refrigerate them for the cool down.
- After the stratifying process, place the seeds in a growing medium. Peat moss and light soil works best. Keep them moist and about 70 degrees. Have patience. It will take another 30 to 100 + days to show germination. My curiosity gets the better of me and I start checking after 30 days for signs of growth.
- For those with a ‘root or tail’, I replant 1” deep in a separate container with appropriate soil.
- I water them with a very diluted liquid fertilizer.
- Keep them moist. The roots are growing, you just don’t see them. It may take a month or more for that growth to push the seed up along with the plant.
- The seedling will start to grow a stem and leaves with the original growth still locked inside the seed pod. Don’t try to remove, or ‘help’ the leaf growth come out of the brown pod. You will probably break it and kill it. Let it do its own thing. I mist them to keep them moist.
- When the seedling starts to come up, the roots are probably down 5” to 8.” The roots are twice the growth, or more, of the plant you see. Replant in a larger pot when needed.
- I transplant several seedlings as a group into a larger planter. I include several seedlings because the recipient will need several trees for cross-pollination when they get big.
- Seeds that I broadcast in my garden eventually grew twice as large as ones I had potted.
- At the end of the summer, the potted plants were 8” tall. The garden plants were close to 14”. I watered all of them a lot.
Last year I collected more than 200 pawpaw seeds. When they started ‘hatching’ I had so many baby pawpaws I couldn’t take care of all of them. My shelves were full of baby plants. I knew Jim Walton also had an interest in growing pawpaws and I gave him most of the still dormant seeds that had not yet opened up.
I do not know what success he had. I took my remaining seeds and broadcast them in a 24X36″ spot in my garden. Now there are about 35 seedlings about 12 -15” tall growing in my garden.
In April my oldest pawpaw tree had close to 100 baby pawpaws. By mid-summer there were only ten. By late summer they had all dropped. I should have watered the tree. In late September I started checking other pawpaw groves, including the one at Sinking Springs trail. Perhaps another pawpaw hunter had been ahead of me, because in total I probably checked two or three hundred trees, they were all bare save one, and with a bit of shaking, I collected fifteen fruits. I placed them in a bucket and put them out on my covered porch. Several days later I went to check on them and there were only ten. Who took my pawpaws? I happened to see Jim and Lynn Walton in downtown Bentonville and related my missing pawpaw story to him. He immediately said ‘squirrels!’. So, from last year’s bounty of over 200 seeds and the 50 seeds I was able to collect this fall, I look forward to next spring’s growing process.