Home of the Practically Perfect Pink Phlox and other native plants for pollinators

Monday, April 20, 2020

Such a pretty spring flower

Oh my, it smells like rotting flesh!

The Paw paw is in flower and it's only taken 6 years. Not just one flower, there are two. There's little hope for fruiting, the flowers are on the same plant, but, I remain hopeful that a Zebra swallowtail will show up!

The back story (from earlier post)

Everything I knew about Paw-paws I learned from Captain Kangaroo...seriously. Back in TV land in the mid-fifties the Captain invited us to sing along and mime picking up Paw-paws and putting them in a basket. I hadn't the faintest idea he was talking about a fruit, actually a giant berry, but, I remember loving the game.

That was the last I heard about Asimina triloba or Common Paw paws until I became a native plant gardener and began learning to identify native wildflowers and trees. After a small patch was pointed out to me on a trail at Edwin Warner park my interest grew. Paw paws are not only a charming looking understory tree, but, it has good wildlife value for critters. It's a favorite host plant (larvae feed on the leaves and flowers) of the zebra swallowtail butterfly in the southeastern states and its only host plant for more northern locations. The fruit of the Paw paw is also eaten by forest mammals. But, it wasn't until my friend Terri Barnes of GroWild shared a few with me that I had any idea how wonderful they tasted~ a sweet, custard flavor that's quite hard to describe.
Beautiful in fall

A good looking tree and a good food source for critters~including humans! I had to have them in my garden. My friend Joanna (also a Tennessee Naturalist) told me about a local tree sale that was selling Paw paws and other native trees. Of course I bought one. I planted that seedling one spring day and then I planted a Paw paw patch!

Okay, patch might be too strong a description, but, I planted more Paw paws.

The Paw paw patch
A friend and I dug six small clonal divisions from his large Paw paw patch. Those divisions spent the rest of spring, summer and early fall in a nursery bed. They were watered regularly during the hot, dry summer and were planted about 10 feet from the other seedling in hopes that any flowers produced would be pollinated by flies and other pollinators attracted to their flowers' rotting flesh fragrance!

Paw paws don't self-pollinate, they spread clonally/vegetatively. No matter how big the patch gets, they still need Paw paws that are not part of its clonal group for pollination. Hopefully, my little patch will produce smelly flowers that will attract flies and beetles and Paw paw fruit will be in my future. (for more about flies go to: We can't all be pretty pollinators)

I broke these Paw paw rules and so should you: One, they're divisions and Paw paw divisions usually fail when transplanted; two, I planted in the fall and recommended planting is spring; three, this garden is any thing but a Paw paw's preferred growing site~i.e. well-drained, deep, fertile bottom-land.

Here's what I did:

  1. Dug them in April from an established patch.
  2. Planted them immediately into the kiddie pool nursery bed in a mixture of leaf mold, soil conditioner, compost and two bags of Complete Landscape Mix (expanded shale for drainage).
  3. Watered and nurtured them
  4. Planted them in mid-November in a part of the garden with deeper, rich soil, on a well draining slope near a water source. I planted them at the same depth they were growing in the kiddie pool using the soil they were grown in, taking special care with the fibrous roots, then watered them in well and mulched with leaf mold and fallen leaves to mimic their native habitat. 
  5. Continued to water and nurture them through middle Tennessee brutal summers.

About Paw-paws, in case you wondered.
The Common Paw paw is the northernmost New World representative of the Annonaceae tropical family. It's called a "tropical fruit for the temperate area". It's a lovely understory tree with big leaves and large greenish-blackish fruit. Inside is a delightful tasting fruit that's pale to dark yellow with a network of dark seeds. The taste has been described as a banana-mango-pineapple~I don't know, I just thought it was good.

Asimina triloba is native to the eastern US from the great lakes all the way to the Gulf coast and west into Tennessee where I live and garden. It's found naturally growing in the hills around my neighborhood where it gets the excellent drainage it requires. Grown in full sun it will develop a narrowly pyramidal shape with dense, drooping foliage down to the ground level. Although, it's reported to fruit better in full sun it needs shade and protection from winds its first two years. Remember to plant two trees so they can cross pollinate and please don't dig them from the wild.

If you're fortunate and have generous friends you might try a Paw paw experiment like mine. What have you got to lose! I celebrate my two flowers. They encourage me to continue to break the established horticulture rules and I encourage you to keep breaking them, too.


Gail Eichelberger is a gardener and therapist in Middle Tennessee. She loves wildflowers and native plants and thoroughly enjoys writing about the ones she grows at Clay and Limestone. She reminds all that the words and images are the property of the author and cannot be used without written permission.


  1. Very interesting. My original paw paw is about 10 feet tall and about 6 years old (too). I now have a small colony. I have read conflicting reports about self-pollinating or not. I'll take your word that they are not. I guess I need to get another colony started so that I can get fruit. I've never seen a zebra swallowtail caterpillar either.

  2. I tried planting a paw paw last fall. It didn't make it. I will be trying again tho. I remember a neighbor years ago having them and they bore fruit. I have always been fascinated with them. Besides who wouldn't want a Zebra Swallowtail in their garden?? We have had one pass through the garden ONE time in all the years I have lived here. Ever hopeful...

  3. My little pawpaw just flowered this week for the first time! Am very excited and looking for the zebras... and I'm already planning to plant another 1 or two for pollination

  4. I love being part of your pawpaw story! This is the first year for my trees to flower, too. BUT, someone has been eating the buds and flowers. The damage is quick and clean, like from a bird (not an insect), but I haven't caught anyone in the act. Out of six trees, there's a single flower remaining . . .

  5. Don't think I've ever seen a Pawpaw flower before!

  6. Very interesting. There is a lady west of Chicago who has a Paw Paw orchard. She brings the fruit to a couple different farmers' markets.

  7. There is a lady west of Chicago who has a paw paw orchard. She sells her fruit at a couple of different farmers' markets.

  8. What a surreal look these flowers have! My first memories of Paw Paws go back to that episode of Captain K too. Then I saw a tree at my aunt's garden in Cape Cod and since then I have been almost mesmerized with these magnificent yet strange plants. Despite the repulsive smell of its flowers, paw paw jam is delicious! Thank you for this amazing write-up on one of my favorite plants. Have a great day!

  9. One would almost expect a dragon incense burner to smell of smoke and brimstone, but that is just not the case


"Insects are the little things that run the world." Dr. E O Wilson