Growing paw paws in East Texas

The paw paw (Asimina triloba) is an intriguing native fruit tree. It'll also likely be uncommon for those living on farm and ranch land for sale in Texas. I myself have seen them only a few times, and must admit that I've never tasted their fruit. In fact, I know only one person in Lufkin who has planted a paw paw tree in their yard. In a nutshell: I'm betting many readers aren't familiar with the tree or its fruit!

"The paw paw is an intriguing and tasty fruit."

Paw paw trees are mostly located in the eastern U.S., from as far south as Florida and all the way toward the Canadian border. Their fruit resembles a mango in size and shape, but has several peculiarities that are worth noting. 

Interestingly, the paw paw found its way into the writings of one the earliest Spanish conquistadors, Hernando de Soto. In 1541, at the height of the Age of Exploration, he was exploring what would later become the southern U.S. when he found it being cultivated by Native Americans. Also, our first president, George Washington, enjoyed eating chilled pawp aws for dessert, Lewis and Clark consumed the fruit on their westward travels and Thomas Jefferson grew it on the grounds of Monticello, his famed estate.

Growing paw paws in East TexasThe paw paw makes for a one-of-a-kind fruit treat!

Paw paw trees can be fickle to get established in the yards of country living East Texas folks, but once planted, they are relatively easy to care for and maintain. Reaching a mature height of 30-40 feet, with trunks that expand to about a foot in diameter, they attract few pests by comparison to other, similar trees. The paw paw tree even serves as a host plant for the native zebra swallowtail butterfly. Additionally, it's noted for the striking rust-yellow  leaves that descend from its branches in the fall. 

If found in the wild, you'll likely see these trees in small groves. If you want to have them in your backyard, you'll need slightly acidic soil that is rich and well-drained. Also, if you intend to grow fruit, you'll need to plant two different paw paw cultivars.

The flavor of the paw paw -which has sometimes been called "America's forgotten fruit" - is generally considered to resemble a blend of mango, pineapple and banana. In his epochal book Sturtevant's Edible Plants of the World, renowned 19th century farmer and botanist E. Lewis Sturtevant wrote that paw paws tasted like "a natural custard, too luscious for the relish of most people."

You won't see paw paw in most grocery stores, because it has such a short shelf life once picked: no more than 3 days if not refrigerated and a maximum of a week if chilled! In addition to the fact that it only remains edible for such a brief period, some folks will have an allergic reaction to the fruit's skin. Because of these factors, it's easy to understand why it's not as popular as various other fruits.

However, if you are looking for a tree that is unique, native, edible and beneficial to surrounding wildlife, consider the paw paw for your backyard or garden. You'll have a one-of-a-kind dessert to pick fresh off the vine. But remember: It's also enjoyed by other mammals, including raccoons, opossums and squirrels, so be mindful of any fruit waste to minimize the likelihood of attracting these furry pests. 

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Cary Sims is the County Extension Agent for agriculture and natural resources for Angelina County. Contact him via email: cw-sims@tamu.edu

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