Paw paws (Asimina triloba) come as a surprise to most people who are unfamiliar with them. They are a fruit tree native to eastern North America that can be grown in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 5 through 8. Paw paws are a large fruit with a sweet, exotic flavor and custardy flesh. They have never been fully domesticated and are not available in supermarkets, but paw paw enthusiasts have bred a number of varieties that improve on the quality of fruit from the wild plant. Of these, a handful have come to be the most popular and widely planted.
Some of the first serious efforts to domesticate the paw paw occurred in the 1960s and resulted in several varieties that have stood the test of time and are still among those most commonly planted today. "Taylor" was selected in Michigan and ripens in September. After reaching maturity, the tree produces about 70 fruits per year of a medium size, averaging 110 grams each. "Sunflower," selected in Kansas, also ripens in September and produces about 75 fruits per tree, averaging 155 grams each.
Paw paw breeders have done a lot of work to increase fruit size in hopes of greater success on the commercial market. "Overleese" was one of the original champions of fruit size, selected in Indiana in 1950. It weighs in at 170 grams and produces about 55 fruit per tree. "NC-1" is a hybrid between two other large fruiting varieties and was released in 1976. The tree averages 180 grams per fruit and 45 fruits per tree. However, "Potomac" is the new king of paw paw size, a recently released variety that dwarfs the others with 235 gram fruit.
Besides large fruit, breeding efforts have focused on making more prolific trees that would have greater appeal to growers. "PA Golden" Is a selection from New York State that produces 120 fruit per year on average. "Wilson" came out of Kentucky in 1985 and has small, 90-gram fruit but produces about 130 in each crop. "KSU-Atwood" is a recent release from the University of Kentucky breeding program and is the new champion for paw paw productivity with 150 fruit per year and a nice size of 120 grams each.
Decades of breeding improved paw paw varieties has led to varities produced by Neal Peterson that include the all-round "Shenandoah," which lacks the strong aftertaste which has been one of the factors keeping paw paws off the mainstream radar. "Susquehanna" is a large fruiting type with the smallest percentage of seeds of any variety. It is also less fragile than most, one of the final frontiers for paw paw breeders to produce a marketable fruit.