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The Smell of Paw Paw Flowers

The Smell of Paw Paw Flowers

This is the first year that my baby paw paw trees have flowered, and like the first time with many things, it is kind of interesting. By day, the flowers do not seem to have much smell. They kind of smell like wet carpet I guess, and no living creature seems the least bit interested in them.

But around dusk, my goodness, the story changes. Every small fly from miles around seems to have flown in to visit. Perhaps a hundred small flys are just going absolutely crazy all around the tree. They are pacing madly up and down every branch of the tree (these are not mellow California flies--did you just fly in from NY?--the whole thing seems very east coast.)

Strangely, though, the flies do not necessarily show a tendency to visit the flower itself. The vast majority of them just want to go crazy on the tree. Is this flower putting out an aphrodisiac in the air or something? Not exactly your mother's fruit tree...

Or maybe it is that (whew!) smell at dusk. It seems that at dusk, the flower is suddenly much more pungent. It smells like a dead fish to me. I suppose the paw paw evolved in the ever moist earth of the creekside. As a creekside tree, it went down the path of using flies for pollination. And as such, it had to compete with actual dead fish and other such stinky things for the attention of flies! From generation to generation, it would seem, the trees that survived and procreated the most readily were the stinkiest!

Any other printable opinions on what these flowers smell like?

The following thread was started by Paul on May 04, 2005 at 1:43 pm PST

re: Paw Paw

Hi Paul, I just recently received some very informative info from the RFG regarding Paw Paws, one member mentioned that the fruit [skin] had an appalling smell, but the fruit was good..
I did not have any success about 10 or l2 yrs ago with paw paw's but ordered another 2 this year and wanted to know more about them...

When I finally plant [have been advised to keep them in a shady location..potted] I will remember to keep them as far away from the house as I can...that ordor does not smell enticing [possibly my night blooming jasmine may help?] ..

The above followup was added by Marion Brodie on May 05, 2005 at 11:16 am PST.

my experience

I finally was able to get a smell from my flowers, after trying for many years, seedlings as well as 5 or 6 named varieties. This was when they were being visited by a host of flies, from gnat sized to full on big housefly types. And I was finding flies inside the flowers too.

I guarantee you flies at least try to make it inside the flowers otherwise how would the spiders that live in about half the flowers be able to make a living?

This was late morning, about 70F temperature. The flowers that were just past the stage where they show any green, i.e. light brown all over, plus a little older, had a light but quite distinctive smell of grapes when they just start fermenting. A few smelled more like even older fruit, more like vinegar to be more accurate.

I wouldn't worry at all about the smell close to the house, you have to bury your nose in the flowers to pick up anything.

The advice about shade is good, they like it. Keep it there until it starts to throw large leaves, that means it is ready for sun. They are also slower than any other hardy fruit you are going to grow.

And I wonder about the comment that the fruit skin had an "appalling" smell. He might have meant to type "appealing" because they smell just fantastic, and you can pick up the scent many feet away from the tree. That is how you know they are really ripe. The smell is something like banana chardonnay. The downside is that the squirrels smell them too and they *really* like pawpaws.

My recommendation is to plant them in the intended spot ASAP because they sulk after transplanting and have an extremely strong geotropic tap root system. The thick, aromatic roots are also brittle and break easily and I don't think they like being messed with.

I have one inferior seedling, this is its last year to convince me it has any reason to live. It produces very small fruit that are almost entirely starchy and are bitter. If it makes the same fruit again I am going to "give it the axe! the axe! the axe! Right in the neck! the neck! the neck!" It didn't produce until it was over 6' tall and 10 years old.

These results are from Santa Cruz.


The above followup was added by luen on May 05, 2005 at 3:43 pm PST.


Dead fish!, strange when it's related to Cherimoyas which is in the running to have the best smelling flower of any tree on the planet

The above followup was added by Jason on May 06, 2005 at 2:26 am PST.

Visitors From the East...


It is nice to see you post again. Something told me that if I posted something on paw paws we might hear from you again.


As Luen noted, I would not worry about the smell and its proximity to your house. The smell does not seem that evident except in close proximity to the flowers, and of course, we are talking about a grand total of about 2 weeks out of the year that they are actively blooming.

It is certainly not my goal to disparage the paw paw tree in any way such that it is considered an unwelcome house guest...I am a fan...I have read that paw paws were George Washington's favorite desert (then again, I have also read that aliens abducted Elvis, and that this seminal event had some relevance to a dieting scheme.)

As for my two cents on paw paws, okay three cents, well maybe 25 cents... (BTW Luen has posted some great detailed stuff on his experiences with paw paws in the past...I don't have the archived dates handy at the moment...) I think paw paws present some interesting and exciting challenges for those of us who are growing them in California.

Paw paws are not plants that can simply be purchased in the morning, sit quietly while you dig a little 1 foot deep hole in your rock-hard clay soil, then eagerly jump into this organic coffin and start growing happily. From a certain perspective, what this means is that the general public in California might not do too well with paw paw trees. The quick and easy gardener need not apply. (Of course, it is worth noting that the illustrious Dave Wilson growers are now sending out baby grafted paw paw trees to many California nurseries which is great! I do, however, foresee a lot of dead paw paw trees.)

Instead, my 3-4 years worth of experience with them suggests that they do best when you really take to heart, I mean really take to heart, just what a paw paw tree is. It is an understory tree from the creekside forests of the Midwest/East/South that wants to grow in the ridiculously loamy, "decaying organic matter at all times" soil that is found there. It is also expecting summer rain and moisture. The fruit itself is an almost unmatched powerhouse of protein and minerals. As such, I think the tree absolutely craves a soil set up that will allow it to process a lot of minerals from decaying plant matter and the like. That means loose and loamy soil with lots of organic activity.

You might think of the tree as a visitor from the Midwest. If someone were visiting you in California from the Midwest, you wouldn't greet them at the airport, whisk them out to the ocean for a surfing session, mountain bike over to the local vegan Thai restaraunt, order up a tofu scramble, then finish off the evening with experimental theater at Fort Mason, now would you? Think of the shock! On the other hand, you wouldn't necessarily have to spend the entire day discussing high school football over tuna melt and lemonade.

A happy middle ground I think can be found, something like...well...a visit to Trader Joe's, a generally progressive California native that is fast spreading across the U.S. like so many luminous candles on a birthday cake. I often meet midwestern visitors at the local Trader Joe's.

I recently met a guy there who was visiting from Oklahoma. With hundreds of healthy, in many cases organic, products to choose from, he had instead, loaded up his shopping cart with only one type of product to bring back to Oklahoma. In his cart were over 100 bottles of $2 a bottle Charles Shaw wine (as we like to say "2-Buck Chuck"). "This stuff is cheap," he said. I nodded affirmatively. "We don't have this back in Oklahoma," he remarked. I suppose not I said. I wished him well, and hoped he had enjoyed his stay in California.

But I digress...

Summer rains? Loose and loamy soil? That does not sound like California to is what I have found with paw paws.


Most paw paws these days are purchased in skinny 3" x 3" x 9" tree liner pots. There are people who send them to you bare root, and while this is really considered wrong by many ostensible experts, it is done with apparently substantial success. What do you do once you get the plant?

Well...the first paw paws that I got this way, I planted into the ground in a shady area with substantially clay soil that really was not very good about "getting water to roots". These grafted trees have grown about 6 inches in 4 years.

These trees are definitely looking at a red light, refusing to go anywhere. I keep telling them, no, no it is a green light. Look at that adjacent plum tree growing like crazy. Grow. Grow. I have fertilized them. I have watered them every other day, and they have just barely, grudgingly responded. Still, I am determined to make them grow. I have really mulched them to the hilt this year, and I have retroactively taken measures to open up the surrounding soil to water, and I think, about the time I am uttering my last words, on my deathbed, they will fruit. Well...maybe a little earlier than that.

A short while after I planted those, I purchased some $2 seedlings on a lark at the local Home Depot. These, I decided, I would experiment with. I actually decided to grow these in 15 gallon pots (too huge). I carefully mixed a special soil for them. I mixed the native clay soil (not necessarily a good choice), with the Home Depot clay buster soil amendment, and I added a lot of dead leaves into the entire soil mix. I also placed three live earthworms into each pot! Why not?

Before filling the pots, actually, I placed a 2 inch layer of dead leaves at the bottom of the pot such that the drain holes were plugged by the leaves. What this meant was that the bottom of each pot would actually become a very wet decaying layer of rotting leaves. A strange thing to create I know, I am not necessarily saying this was right...but I thought it would be an interesting experiment. The 15 gallon pots were all placed in an area with no direct sunlight, but instead, reflected sunlight. The pots were watered regularly such that the soil NEVER dried out (not as hard when the drain holes are substantially, though not fully, closed.)

As you can probably guess, the seedlings in the pots grew quite nicely, quickly surpassing the height of the ones in the ground. I found that when I further mulched (with dead leaves and twigs) the top of each pot, they grew even faster. Curiously, when I removed the mulch, their growth slowed, almost like an accelerator that mulch. When the trees' roots really started circling the bottom of the pot with their roots, they really took off even stronger.

The next year, I purchased a few more grafted paw paws, and I decided to give them the 15 gallon treatment as well. I found that they too liked this set up, but did not grow as fast as the seedlings, perhaps about half has fast as the seedlings.

Last year, I obtained some paw paw seeds and I planted them in little four inch pots thinking that perhaps they would germinate. They did and how. In the last few months I have experimented with mulching these tiny seedlings.

I have found that before I mulched them, the roots which have already cramped themselves up against the bottom of the pot looked okay. After I mulched them, the roots had some small amounts of white fungi close to them. Of course, it has been repeatedly noted that paw paws require symbiotic fungi to really grow nicely. The mulch up top, it would seem, provides the goods for the roots down below. Long and short of it, paw paws want leaf and twig mulch up top.

Last winter, and this winter, I planted several of the trees that were in 15 gallon pots into the ground in my garden. As Luen has noted, paw paws go through a baby stage for several years where their leaves are a certain smaller size. At some point, when they get their legs and confidence going, their leaves almost double in size. After a few years, my 15 gallon trees had begun to have big leaves, so I thought it was time to transplant them into the ground.

So...I amended the surrounding ground with tons of leaf mulch before I did this, and I have mulched the top of these trees. Trying to actually get a tree out of a 15 gallon pot, though, is not that much fun. And of course, with the reputation of paw paws having tender brittle roots, it can really be nerve wracking (did I kill it by accident?). The roots, when you do damage them, are nicely fragrant, kind of like soursop roots! To me, this day of transplant is a downside to growing things out in 15 gallon pots....

As Luen noted, a transplant of a confident big leaf Paw Paw often results in the plant reverting back to its small leaf stage for a time, and that has happened with the one I transplanted last winter, (and I think with the ones I transplanted this year, though it is still a little early to tell.)

This year, I purchased two more grafted paw paws, and despite the seeming "go with the pot first" conclusion of these experiments, I decided to put in the ground with extra extra leaf mulch integrated into the surrounding soil and lots of mulch up top. I guess I really didn't enjoy those transplants from the 15's, and of course, I am running out of "pot space" with all the pots of various plants I have around. So...I will see if this middle course works...

The above followup was added by Paul on May 06, 2005 at 2:12 pm PST.

Gee it sounds like a little too complicated to grow, glad I never knew it was that hard

I simply keep mulch on the soil and keep them damp, like I do all of my plants and mine are doing fine. I knew they were understory plants, but then many plants are, if you look how they grow, it is just some are more adamant about having those conditions more then others.


The above followup was added by DavidLJ48, Waterford CA, zone9 on May 06, 2005 at 10:54 pm PST.

Pawpaws not that difficult

Gee, guys, never knew Pawpaw was that difficult to grow! I have two trees, in a generally clay-calcareous soil, sitting on a draining channel (always dry in summer) side. I live in Italy 40 km from the Adriatic Sea, 200 km south from Venice, very rainy winters and very hot summer reaching 40°C.
Winter got -12°C and they're blooming now in the full sun, I get them water when I remember about, and they usually do 30-40 fruits each (they're 5-6 feet tall), falling on ground ripe at las decade of august.
I think it may be too warm your winter, guys, and the soil texture too light for Pawpaws.
Employed cultivar is Washington (one) and NoOneKnows ;-) (the other).

The above followup was added by Andrea (from north Italy) on May 06, 2005 at 11:17 pm PST.

Andrea, that was what I was trying to say, but I guess I was half asleep when I posted and did not finish it.

As I said, I simply kept the ground covered with mulch and put some shade cover over head fore a couple seasons, and they have done well.

The two taller ones, a little over 2 feet tall bloomed this spring, and looked like they were going to hold some fruit, but dropped them. Which is what I expected, being they were so small of plants.

Mulch on the ground and keeping damp, with 50 % shade was all of the ideal and natural forest conditions they needed.


The above followup was added by DavidLJ48, Waterford CA, zone9 on May 07, 2005 at 10:23 am PST.

Washington growing in Italy?


I am curious about your paw paws. Are paw paw trees sold throughout Italy? How did you get yours? How old are your trees?

And the cultivar "Washington", I have never heard of that cultivar, ever. Do you know its story? It kind of matches that story of Washington really liking paw paws for desert!

And how would you describe the fruit of your two trees?!


What kind of soil would you say you have? I am guessing sandy? How old are your trees?

Your "mulch and keep moist in the summer" approach I think is essentially what all my fun experimentation (and common sense considering the origins of the paw paw) suggest will help them grow optimally.

You might think that a plant that really only grows nicely if a California gardener plants the baby tree in the shade (or dappled sun) and "mulches and keeps moist in the summer" is not such a difficult plant to grow, but you would be surprised.

I would guess that in my suburban town probably about 5% of the gardeners would think of using such an approach if simply given a paw paw tree.

If you plant a baby paw paw tree in the direct California sunlight (which seems to be more intense than the eastern sunlight), my sense is that it has about a 90% chance of dying. If you don't mulch and regularly summer water the baby tree, it will probably grow about 2 inches a year at best. I am not saying it will die the first year, though that is a distinct possibility. I have killed a few trees this way and probably heard of about a dozen or so dying this way.

In general, I am always surprised at how few gardeners use fallen leaf mulch. If you told the average gardener to mulch the paw paw when they purchased it, probably 75% of them would do it the first year, 50% of them would do it the second year, and so on, until one day they would stop mulching, and complain that the darn tree is such a slow grower.

The somewhat unexpected habit of paw paws to grow faster in large pots is something that I (and I think Luen) have found. It is worth noting that this "grow in pots" idea kind of runs counter to established notions of the paw paw needing to send its deep tap root down and down to be successful. I have more thoughts on this issue...but another day!

And the small leaf to big leaf transition which Luen has documented, and I have seen, is usually not discussed in the literature, and is also kind of neat. I don't know that it complicates anything about their care.

In general, some people just like to study all they can about a plant! Some people just like to grow them and move on with the rest of their life! When I do decide to get into a plant, I have a tendency to study its habits extensively. I suppose I am a few steps away from becoming a bird watcher! Yipes...

It is also worth recognizing that I over- generalized about California, as if every California soil is hard clay! In the centeral valley, there is sandy loam which is likely much better for paw paws roots picking up their nutrition. In Southern California, there is DG, or decomposed granite, as well as sand. And in the North, there are wonderful humus-filled forests, next to year round streams. The paw paw should love this humus...

Paw paw trees, I have heard, do quite well au natural in California riparian contexts and the dappled forests of the Coastal range, for example in Sonoma County, and up on north, all the way to the Oregon border. Oregon seems to be prime growing for paw paws.

As best I can tell, some growers in Southern California who have had troubles growing and fruiting the paw paw have ascribed their failures to lack of winter chill. But, I am just not inclined in this direction. There are enough successes in Southern California now that I think that the winter chill thing has been put to rest. is ALWAYS mentioned as a possible explanation for failure.

If I had to guess, any failure in California is probably due to:

1) Planting the baby paw paw in the direct sunlight;
2) Not mulching the paw paw;
3) Not watering the paw paw regularly in the summer.

I do think Paws Paws are a fun do-able challenge, granted a very small challenge (not as hard as keeping a lawn weed-free without using herbicides!). They are a wee bit harder to fruit than a plum tree, a mulberry tree, a loquat tree or a fig tree (which need NO summer water, none, where I live, and still give 500 fruits).

Now the soursop...that is a tough one...I have one growing inside now. I have killed a few seedlings me, it looks like the closest fruiting relative to the paw paw...and I LOVE its taste. Anybody successfully fruiting a Soursop in California? You win the gold medal!

The above followup was added by Paul on May 07, 2005 at 10:58 am PST.

Paul, soil type.

I have ???, not sure what one would call it. It is what I might describe as sandy slit, which is somewhat different then sand or clay.

Two of my trees are over 2 feet, and 2 way shorter. The reason for the shorties on two is the neighboring church trees water; which have sucked a lot water from my yard.

Well there is one less, the Pastor had it cut down, so the front of my yard would not be so affected.

I was not careful with the shade cloth, and would forget how badly the neighbors shade trees was sucking water. They only grow in spring it seems and if you miss that growth time, you cannot get it back here after it turns warm, later in the season.
I would check the easiest end to see and it was it was damp, but the end nearest the neighbors shade tree would get bone dry, when I was not watchful enough.

This year with the shade tree done and the shade cloth as well, it should not be a problem.

With plants you have to do the research, they have such varied needs. People who buy plants and just plant them, only enrich the pockets of the Nurseries unnecessarily. Nurseries love people who really don't know what they are doing, they keep coming back to buy more and more and more.


The above followup was added by DavidLJ48, Waterford CA, zone9 on May 07, 2005 at 10:16 pm PST.

Sandy Silt and Growth Rates


Sandy silt sounds like a good soil for growing paw paws, better than clay. I think paw paw roots prefer full and complete access to water and nutrients [clay can lock up portions of the root structure during the dry hot summers unless your watering is slow, sustained and complete (e.g. rain!)]

Your observation that your paw paw trees have a small spring-time window when they decide how much to grow for the entire year is something I have also noticed about them (No complaints that I am making this tree more complex please!)

What I have seen is that if you do not give your baby trees adequate moisture and mulch during the spring weeks after they leaf out, forget about trying to pamper them later to encourage growth. They seem to make a very early decision about their plans for growth for the year, and if they decide it is going to be a bad growth year, they hunker down in a stasis mode, regardless of all the good things you do for them in June through September...

I didn't get the age of your two foot tall trees...but in general my experiments have been along the lines of trying to get these trees to grow faster. That explains the pots experiment. If putting them into large pots as babies yields a rate of growth perhaps twice that of putting them into the ground immediately, (an unexpected and surprising result that finds absolutely no support whatsover in any of the literature on paw paws), it may be of interest. Luen seems to have found that this works...and one other paw paw grower long ago told me that this works....Again, it tends to run counter to conventional wisdom about paw paws.

Overall, for my tastes, these trees leaf out way too late, and give up their leaves way too early (give me a break you fools, it's only September.) Poor relatives from a snowy land...expecting such a harsh winter. They miss out on so much wonderful California weather for growth...I mean REAL California growth. :)

The above followup was added by Paul on May 08, 2005 at 10:26 am PST.


On growth, mine only seem to grow in early spring while cooler, before summer heat comes along. It never attempts to grow later on.

But then my Pistachio is very similar, it comes out about the same time and growth stops about the same time too. Though the Pistachio will keep putting more growth out later into the warming spring if it does not get too hot too fast. Last year I had two growth spurts on my Pistachios.

I tried to keep my Pawpaw's in pots to size up also, but made the mistake of using Miracle Gro on them as a test trial on them and other things the spring I got them. Well it produced leaf burn and I almost lost all of them, did loose one, even after massive water flushing.

Luen advised me to plant right away, getting them out of that soil. Well it worked but lost one in process. I used organic fertilizers but was trying the Miracle Gro, to see how it worked on early plants, some of which I had in the house.

I learned from Jeff and experience that most hardwood plants do not like very much fertilizer when young; which soft herbaceous and veggie plants love.

I did see online test results for improved growth. The guy covered his plants with plastic to give them a earlier warm start and put them under bright light 24/7. He claims massive growth on the order of a few feet or growth or more per year. Maybe he even cited more footage of growth, it has been a few years since I read it online.


The above followup was added by DavidLJ48, Waterford CA, zone9 on May 08, 2005 at 6:56 pm PST.

Paul, forgot to say, my 2 foot trees are couple years old.

I planted them a couple years ago, might even be 3 seasons, (think I have it written down somewhere) and covered with shade cloth, except for the one I had to replace.

The growth this year looks good, like most plants, the larger they get, the more the put on, within limits.

The poor small ones nearest to the Modesto Ash which now is no longer there. They are only 1/3 the size of the taller ones, that shows what a lack of water does at prime growth time. If you don't have it when it wants to grow, you don't get it later; you loose it and the chance never comes again.


The above followup was added by DavidLJ48, Waterford CA, zone9 on May 08, 2005 at 7:03 pm PST.

Do well in San Luis Obispo County

About 15 years ago I got seeds from Corwin Davis who was selecting seedlings from his collection back east. They are planted in our pure sand (dune sand) and as understory plants. They are now 10 feet tall and produce irregularly some fantastic fruit the size of bananas. Hand pollination does not seem to help. These are very healthy trees and cold or warm winters do not affect them. They do sucker quite a bit, but these rooted suckers are a good propagation method. Tried pollinating with cherimoya pollen a couple of years to see what would happen. Got no fruit set. They are a beautiful tree and the fruit is also quite good. We use only drippers on our dune sand and broadcast 15-15-15 for winter rains.

The above followup was added by Jack Swords, Nipomo, CA Central Coast on May 10, 2005 at 8:46 am PST.

October 16, 2002 Paw Paw Conversation

For those who are interested in looking at some previous detailed comments on paw paws that were posted on the Cloudforest Cafe by Luen and others, the date of that conversation was October 16, 2002.

As of today at least, you can get to that information by clicking on the "archive" option at the top of this board and going to the October 16, 2002 date where you will find a post by Tom A. entitled "Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch." In this thread, the venerable Tom A. describes being moderately impressed with the taste of Neal Peterson's selections (which you can order from Neal at and Luen describes his experience with containers and the small leaf and big leaf stages.


Your experiences in SLO county sound interesting.

Do you know what cultivar your seeds are from...for example...Davis? Taylor? Corwin Davis, I believe, selected a number of paw paw cultivars...Did you meet him and speak with him about paw paws?

How would you describe the taste of your seedling paw paws? Like a banana? With caramel?

The above followup was added by Paul on May 11, 2005 at 0:11 am PST.

Corwin Davis

I actually talked with Corwin Davis by telephone and he volunteered to send me the seeds of a top variety from his selections. If I had a name or number it is gone. The flavor is banana-like, but with the large seeds, orangeish flesh. Quite popular with the local possums and racoons. Tree is full of flowers now with small fruit set. Most will drop in June. These are pretty large trees, one mixed up with a macadamia tree. Seem to appreciate shade. I have pulled suckers and they grow well. An interesting tree/fruit.

The above followup was added by Jack Swords, Nipomo, SLO County CA on May 11, 2005 at 7:42 am PST.

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