Monday, April 16, 2012

PawPaw Possibilities

Down my eastern hillside, near the unmown prairie, I have a line of trees planted that has, through no planned vision of my own, become a sort of collection of tree oddities, at least of trees somewhat rare for Kansas.  These include a hawthorne, sourgum, bald cypress, two American persimmons planted only because my daughter likes persimmons (they're not old enough to bear fruit yet however), and a Common Pawpaw (Asimina triloba).  

The latter has had a rough life for a young tree.  It stands, right now, only about 3 feet tall, having been burnt early on in a fire and then, the next year, chewed down to a nubbin by marauding deer.  Still, it survived, and every year it puts out a few of those large, Cretaceous-era leaves to remind me that older and larger creatures once walked this earth.  And this year, imagine my surprise to see it bloom!  I didn't know Pawpaws bloomed, although any idiot amateur gardener like myself should realize that if they bear large banana-like fruit, they must bloom at some point.

PawPaw blossom
The bloom appearance, if you've never seen one, is quite unique, and I now understand the "triloba" species name, because the three-lobed calices of these flowers are quite distinctive.  These small muddy-purple flowers are thick-petaled, about the size of a dime, and would go unnoticed if you didn't look closely.  They appear, nestled next to the branch points, before the leaves have opened in the spring. Their flower faces are directed downwards and you have to practically lay on the ground to appreciate their structure (well, on a three-foot tall tree, anyway).  Look closely from a ground perspective, however, and you'll be amazed at the rich deep color of the petals and sepals, which surround a stiff wax-like receptacle and stamens.  I would recommend that you sample the fragrance of the flowers at your own risk, however, since the flowers have a musky odor that I will charitably describe here only as "yeasty."

In my ignorance about this tree, I had no intentions related to a higher environmental consciousness than hoping someday to taste its edible fruits, but in reading about the Pawpaw, I have since learned that it is the sole source of food for larvae of the Zebra Swallowtail (Eurytides marcellus).  I've never seen one of these gorgeous butterflies, but as my Pawpaw grows, I'll be sure to leave any such larvae alone and to watch for the appearance of any errant migrants that make it this far west.  "If you build it, they will come" was the line from the movie Field of Dreams.  Well, maybe, just maybe, "if I grow it, they will come" works the same way for a gardener.


  1. Ah, how interesting that you've got a paw paw! I've been looking at them for several years now, wondering where the best place to put one or two would be...and managing to procrastinate about getting one at all, in the interim. Now I feel challenged to move ahead!

    I've only seen one zebra swallowtail in Kansas, and that was in Holton (north of Topeka) about 4 weeks ago. They are beautiful...and I'd love to get a small population of them established out here.

  2. HAHA!! If you grow it, they will come. .is my WHOLE gardening philosophy! I am trying to improve the variety of bird species around our place. Apparently, great minds think alike!! Good luck with that tree!! Interesting to know about the tree oddities. .I have 2 small Hawthorne trees rooting into pots I got from the Arbor Day Foundation. I don't know anyone that has them growing. .They have interesting looking leaves. .and sound like a good wildlife tree! Would be interested to see some photos of yours! Have a great week!

  3. One paw paw? I have 3 seedlings struggling in my yard in NJ right now and I thought you needed a pollinator to get fruit. Is yours grafted with 2 different varieties? Good luck. Mine are only in their first and second seasons right now so I haven't seen flowers yet. Can't wait though. I read the flowers are supposed to resemble meat because paw paws developed before bees did and they are chiefly pollinated by flies and the like. Weird right? The petals do look like little pieces of steak. haha. - Lisa

  4. PawPaw flowers are "perfect" containing complete male and female parts, so they should be able to set seed. The insect pollinators are few and far between, resulting in irregular fruit production. Some authorities think that because of the irregular production they may need cross-pollination, but I can't find a reference that states it definitively. If mine bears fruit, I guess we'll know the answer. Thanks for reading and commenting on my blog.


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