Looking for a small understory tree that is a bit out of the ordinary? Let us suggest the native Asimina triloba, a member of the custard apple family and a terrific pyramidal tree that will mature at around 20 feet.The Paw Paw has much to recommend it to Northern Virginia gardeners, in every season!
In winter, if you look closely at the bare, uplifting branches, you will notice small, fuzzy brown flower buds waiting for the first hint of warmth. The deep maroon, bell-shaped flowers bloom in early spring, dangling beneath the branches. This evolved to attract flies, beetles, and other carrion-loving pollinators. In order to have fruit, you will need two different Paw Paw trees to cross-pollinate. I’ve read recommendations to hang road kill or manure in your Paws Paws to attract flies to the flowers. While this approach has logic going for it, personally I prefer to welcome spring by taking a feather duster out to the flowering Paw Paw trees, and pollinate the flowers that way. They do alright on their own, but a little extra help ensures a bigger crop come late summer.
In summer, the large, drooping, elliptical leaves provide a wonderful backdrop or specimen tree, with a tropical appearance. Small green fruits appear, often in clusters.Throughout the summer they will continue to grow, ultimately reaching three to four inches in size. Technically berries, they are our largest indigenous fruit.
In late summer, the Paw Paws can be harvested. They are ready to eat when somewhat soft to the touch, like a ripe avocado, and when the green skin turns yellowish, speckled with brown. When you notice the fruit beginning to ripen, pick it and take it indoors. Like bananas, the fruit will continue ripening, and you will have outwitted the wildlife. With a creamy texture and tropical taste reminiscent of bananas, mangos, and pineapple, it is hard to believe that this fruit is native to Virginia, and not from South America!
In fall, the leaves turn a beautiful clear yellow. The trees are spectacular against a dark backdrop, and mix well with the colorful oranges and reds of other natives such as Fothergilla (Witch’s Alder), Clethra (Sweet Pepperbush), and Itea (Virginia Sweetspire).
Paw Paws need little attention, and are bothered by few pests. They like moisture, and are often found along the banks of rivers and streams. However, they do fine in drier, upland conditions, and once established thrive with only occasional watering during our hot, humid summers. Paw Paws will sucker, sending up new sprouts that will eventually form a grove if not cut back. If you only want one or two trees, it is easy to keep the occasional sucker under control with a lawn mower or pruners.
One last (but not least!) benefit of growing Paw Paws is that they are larval hosts for the spectacular Zebra swallowtail butterfly, as well as the Paw Paw sphinx moth. The easy-to-grow Paw Paw provides beauty to the garden, fruit for people and wildlife, and hosts gorgeous butterflies—this native is definitely worth considering for the urban garden!