116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Whether you call it an Appalachian banana, custard apple or banango, the pawpaw used to be common in Eastern Iowa.
The Bur Oak Land Trust is trying to bring back the lumpy green-skinned fruit because the leaves of its tree are the primary food source for the caterpillar of the threatened zebra swallowtail butterfly.
The trust is seeking people willing to “foster” pawpaw tree seedlings until early October, when Trust staff will collect the plants for the winter. Next spring, participants will get to help plant their trees on several Bur Oak properties, creating pawpaw patches. The cost is $25 for a crate of nine potted pawpaw seeds.
“We’re mostly focused on providing the habitat for the butterflies,” said Meredith Roemerman, Trust spokeswoman. “The fruit is the fun side of things.”
Pawpaw trees are most plentiful in eastern states, including Pennsylvania, Maryland and Ohio, but they once also grew in large numbers in Iowa. In the Ice Age, when woolly mammoths and giant sloths roamed the state, they would eat the pawpaw fruit whole, including the tough seed, Roemerman said. As the animals moved about, they helped spread the seeds.
Although raccoons and other animals still eat pawpaw fruit, they leave the seeds near the trees. “People have had to pick up the role of spreading the pawpaws around,” Roemerman said.
The pawpaw is the largest edible fruit indigenous to North America and has grown in popularity in some parts of the country in recent years. A Maryland distiller used the custardy fruit to make a limited-edition liquor and a North Carolina restaurant has made pawpaw budino (Italian pudding), tarts, cocktails and milkshakes, Indy Week reported in 2017.
The fruit doesn’t keep well at grocery stores, which means to bake a pawpaw pie or use the fruit for a new cocktail, you have to know someone with a tree.
Roemerman hadn’t tried a pawpaw before last summer, when a supporter brought in a basket of the fruit.
“You either love it or you hate it,” she said. So which one was it for Roemerman? “I really liked the flavor. The texture was a little odd. It’s not quite as solid as a mango.”
So far, people have claimed about 40 of the 100 crates of pawpaw seedlings, Roemerman said. Some people said they were interested in having a tree in their own yard, but this is more of a lending program as Bur Oak tries to establish patches of trees on their land. But the trust anticipates some seedlings for sale next year, she said.
For more information on the pawpaw foster program, visit https://buroaklandtrust.salsalabs.org/fosterapawpaw.
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