The Secret Pawpaws

September 2021. Pawpaw volunteers are a fact of life. About three weeks ago, I was admiring the stump sprout dubbed Phoenix that is replacing the pawpaw I cut down. Genetically, it is the gone pawpaw, and it has all the resources of the full-grown root system that was left behind.

I was also fretting over the lack of rain. The twinleaf had been steadily yellowing, and was getting crispy in spots. The dwarf Japanese Solomon’s seal was sunburnt—it was missing the pawpaw I cut down. The lack of rain wasn’t helping. The lawn was that water-stressed bluish green, and the pawpaw leaves were hanging limp.

Then we had five inches of rain in less than 48 hours. There are advantages to gardening in a glacial outwash—despite being in a floodplain, the water soaked in instead of running off. The lawn turned emerald green, the kousa dogwood started dropping ripe fruit with a little help from the squirrels, and little pawpaws started popping up more or less along the dripline of the remaining tree, as well as that of the gone tree. Some of those were definitely suckers coming up from the roots; it takes a sharp jab with a poaching spade to snap them off their parent root.

Pawpaw suckers are one straight bit of wood attached to a root. My pawpaw pal took and planted several suckers, hoping that the bare subterranean stalks would send out feeder roots, but they didn’t take. Perhaps they would have if they were dipped into rooting hormone, but the next question would be: Can a taproot develop from hormone-induced roots? Of course, that’s assuming any roots grew at all.

For the first time, there were definitely seedlings mixed in to this burgeoning collection of little pawpaws. Some still had the seed attached.

A very young pawpaw seedling with sturdy roots erupting from a seed. Photographed September 15, 2021.

The seedlings’ foliage gave me pause; the venation is alarmingly similar to honeysuckle; fortunately there are other obvious differences. Pawpaws have alternate leaves with hairless top surfaces and a long, furry, naked terminal bud, while honeysuckle has opposite leaves with little white hairs on their top surfaces and squat little buds with scales.

A pawpaw seedling clearly showing alternate leaves and the long, furry, brown terminal bud. Photographed on September 19, 2021.

Pawpaws also have long and obvious taproots with sturdy-looking feeder roots. I dug up nearly three dozen seedlings that were scattered within the dripline throughout the pawpaw bed. My pawpaw pal Dave whisked them away to start a pawpaw patch.

The western pawpaw, left, and the gone tree, right. The stump sprout Phoenix is at the X. The blue line is the dripline. This not-to scale schematic was drawn in Affinity Designer.

Prowling around near the fence line, it became apparent where the critters were eating pawpaws undisturbed. The piece of concrete that the seeds are surrounding is one of the footings of the three-car garage that used to stand in the corner of the yard. I will be checking around the old garage footings for seedlings next fall.

The remains of a pawpaw feast: seeds. A couple of seeds are circled to help you see the scale and appearance so you can find the rest. Photographed on September 19, 2021.

And there were more seedlings along the fence!

A fledgling pawpaw forest was hiding just a foot from the corner of my neighbor’s garage, well outside the dripline. Photographed on September 19, 2021.

When I ordered the two original 2-year-old bare-root trees near the turn of the century, they came in a box that looked like it was originally made to ship umbrellas. The original two trees were almost all root, and required a lot of digging for their preposterously long taproots. The taproots on these somewhat older seedlings make the reason clear. These could be as much as a year old; they may have sprouted in the spring, or perhaps even the previous fall. What roots!

These somewhat older seedlings had their main boles snapped (or bitten) off earlier in the summer and grew new tops. Photographed on September 11, 2021.

My favorite spade, a poacher’s spade, is the ideal tool for digging up pawpaws because of its long and narrow blade. The gravelly soil fell right off the roots, but they still got a swish in water before bundling so they would not dry out on the way to their new quarters. A handful of pawpaws smell very medicinal.

A handful of pawpaw seedlings about to be put in a bucket of water. Photographed by Dave Szczgiel on September 19, 2021.

As I went deeper into the Annabelle hydrangeas after the honeysuckle, I found a patch of pawpaw seedlings, and later, another smaller patch under the oakleaf hydrangea—six dozen in all—with nice taproots and feeder roots. I will be looking much more carefully under and behind plants after this experience.

Pawpaw seedling root check: the ones with complete taproots were bundled. The second and third seedling from the right have damaged taproots. Photographed on September 11, 2021.

It doesn’t take much to wrap up a small forest. The plants were lined up on the paper towel similarly to the way they were when I checked their roots. The bottom of the paper towel was folded up and the trees and towels were rolled up and wrapped in plastic wrap.

This is the first bundle, which had about a dozen pawpaws. Photographed on September 11, 2021.

By the time Dave took this picture, he had potted up 35 pawpaws.

Freshly potted pawpaws in a variety of pots awaiting a trip to a root cellar for the winter. Photographed by Dave Szczgiel on September 15, 2021.

Dave is going to have a busy spring. The sap will be running by early April and the buds break by the last week of the month. Last April, I cut the leaning pawpaw and removed the main bole. By April 21, we had blooming pawpaws and snow.

Update, November 10. While checking the hostas in front of the back fence, I discovered and dug up another two dozen pawpaws seedlings. I think that’s finally the last of 2021’s pawpaw seedling cohort. They have gone off to join the rest.

I expect that we will know how many seedlings survived the winter by mid-May. I hope many will. Pawpaws are not self-fruitful, so until Phoenix grows up enough to bear fruit, there will be no pawpaws, and perhaps no more seedlings, to speak of.