Growing Paw Paw From Seed
By Michael Judd
The golden rule to growing a paw paw tree from seed is to never let the seed dry out. So, when you have just finished the exquisite experience of eating a delicious paw paw, you place those seeds either right in the ground where you want to grow a tree or in a ziplock bag that gets put in the refrigerator. Dried out seeds will not germinate.
Be sure to clean all the flesh off the seeds before storing. They will need at least 90 days of chilling, this is known as ‘stratifying’ the seed – a fancy word that just means you are mimicking what happens naturally to cold temperate seeds when overwintering outside. Storing them longer is fine. The seeds are usually collected during harvest season – late August through early October – and then germinated in the spring, so for my seeds, that’s seven months in the refrigerator. Just keep an eye on them to make sure that they do not begin to get mold from being too damp.
*Adding a damp medium like sand to the bag can help maintain the needed moisture but if you have enough seeds in the bag they need no extra medium.
Wild (left) Cultivar (Right)
Wild vs. Cultivated Seed
‘True to seed’ is a horticultural term that tells you how likely something grown from seed will be like its parents. Some fruits, like cherries, come very ‘true to seed’ meaning that they will likely have good fruit if their parents did, whereas apples do not come ‘true to seed’ and planting seed is like playing the lotto for the parent’s qualities. Paw paws come 85-100% ‘true to seed’, meaning you will get a similar tasting fruit and tree to the one you saved seed from. This is a good attribute.
If the paw paws you have been eating and saving seed from are cultivated varieties, those seeds will grow and produce a decent fruit without needing to graft a named cultivar onto it. These are called ‘Select Paw Paw’ seedlings in the nursery trade. They are not named varieties though they may be seed from say the famed ‘Shenandoah’ variety but will have the majority of the parent’s qualities. Select seedlings are fine for home scale growing but not recommended for market production where the assurance of 100% quality that comes from grafted varieties is a wise investment. Select seedlings can also be easily grafted onto, more on that later.
Collecting and growing out wild paw paw seeds is also a fine idea as long as you plan to graft on a guaranteed tasty variety later on, otherwise you are rolling the dice on fruit quality.
Full Pyramid Shape of Mature Paw Paw
Germinating the Seeds
It is easy to successfully grow paw paws from seed. How long it takes for your paw paw seeds to germinate is determined on the temperature of your soil medium. I use a small heating mat that controls the temperature of my soil medium at 85 degrees and my seeds germinate in fourteen days. That’s the fastest I know of. Planted outside in the ground it could take two months for germination to happen once soils begin to warm in the spring. In a pot inside your home it could take one month. Regardless of method if your seeds are in good shape – moist and cool – then germination rates can be in the 90 percent range.
I inherited my germination method from paw paw grower legend Jim Davis of Deep Run Paw Paw Orchard. Using just a single heating mat, a pair of turkey basting pans, and a light weight seeding mix, seeds will sprout in just fourteen days. Now, I germinate hundreds of seeds at a time for my nursery business but the same method works for even just a handful of seeds.
What you need:
- Small seedling heating mat
- Digital control thermostat for heat mat
- 2 aluminum turkey basting pans
- Lightweight seedling soil/potting mix
Be sure your mat has an adjustable thermometer and set it at 85 degrees, place an empty aluminum pan on the mat, moisten the seedling mix and layer it 1 inch thick, place paw paw seeds flat, side by side, cover them with an additional 1 inch of moistened mix. Place seeds, etc, up to three layers if you have the seed. Whether one or three layers, make sure the seeds have an inch layer on top and cover with a turned upside-down pan as the lid, clamp shut. Seeds will germinate in approximately 14 days. Pick them out as soon as the root pokes out and pot up in 12+ inch deep pots or directly in the ground where they will be grown with the root radical facing down.
Alternatively you can place stratified seeds in 12+ inch deep pots, with a moist lightweight soil medium, that have been warmed to room temperature in your home or greenhouse.
The root is very fragile and will break easily so best to plant while it’s just a nub. I pot mine up in 12-inch-deep tree pots ordered from Stewe and Sons to help assure the tap root will not be comprised.
Paw Paw Cream Pie
Click Here to visit Michael’s Paw Paw book kickstarter.
Resource for buying deep potted paw paws of the best quality:
West Farm – Charlie West