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There aren’t many fruit trees native to Iowa, and as corn and soybean replaced native plants throughout the state, even fewer remained in the wild. But the pawpaw tree is making a comeback.
Pawpaw trees are small with large, tapered leaves. It’s part of the custard-apple family, and its yellow-green, potato-shaped fruit tastes like a cross of mangos and bananas, with a creamy sweet texture. They’re also the largest edible fruit indigenous to the United States.
Jason Taylor first heard of the native fruit when he was a student at the University of Iowa, from a professor who grew pawpaws in his backyard. Taylor is the executive director of Bur Oak Land Trust, an Iowa City-based non-profit that works to protect over 900 acres of land in the state and help restore Iowa’s lost biodiversity.
“Iowa is one of the most altered states, if not the most altered state in the country,” he said.
“We weren’t really a wooded state, mostly a prairie state. The vast majority of that, you know, almost 99 percent of prairie is gone, and it was replaced by row crop. We had these amazing tracks of land that were home to thousands of species, and we’ve now converted it to a system, an economy.”
Pawpaws aren’t popular in grocery stores, since they have a short shelf life of two to three days at room temperature, or three weeks when refrigerated. As the pawpaw trees vanished behind cornfields, so too did species that depended on them, like the zebra swallowtail butterfly, whose caterpillars feed on the pawpaw leaves.
Bur Oak is holding its second annual Foster a Pawpaw project to bring back the pawpaws and butterflies. Starting March 12, people can foster a crate of nine potted pawpaw seeds for $30, and care for until the fall. Bur Oak will overwinter the seedlings while they’re dormant, and plant them in the spring.
“We were, you know, trying to think of ways to improve the biodiversity of the properties that Bur Oak Land Trust owns and manages,” Taylor said. “The pawpaws as well as this native butterfly should be on our properties because they used to be here.”
It takes approximately a year before pawpaws are ready to spread their roots. In 2021, the program had 75 fosters who raised 800 pawpaw plants 600 of which survived. People can volunteer to help plant those 600 pawpaw seedlings at the Turkey Creek Nature Preserve on March 19 and 20.
The program has already attracted some zebra swallowtails, Taylor said, and last year marked the first sighting of the zebra swallowtail butterfly in Iowa City.
“I saw one in my yard because I was fostering about 100 pawpaws,” he said. “It’s working. It’s going to work. We know that this species is going to come back … It gives these butterflies a fighting chance.”
Wild pawpaw trees grow in southwest and southeast Iowa. They prefer wet areas with some shade and some sunlight.
“They don’t grow just in the middle of a field, for instance. It needs to be fairly wet, and so we want to have them by a creek,” Taylor.
Despite that, pawpaw trees grow well in urban areas, and there are several full-grown pawpaws in Iowa City. This year, people can buy eight pawpaw seeds for $10 and plant them in their backyards. To produce fruit, two pawpaw trees have to grow near each other, and they rely on beetles to pollinate them, instead of bees or butterflies.
Picking pawpaws off the tree will lead to a bitter aftertaste in the fruit, so it’s best to wait until they fall from the tree. As it ripens, the outside turned yellow, and pulp becomes custardy. When pawpaws are too ripe, they turn black and taste similar to caramel or butterscotch. The seeds are inedible.
You can use the fruit to make a host of baked goods and desserts: pawpaw bread, muffins, pies, cakes, cookies, puddings, custards, jams, punch, sherbet and ice cream. Pawpaws can also be fermented for alcoholic drinks.
“It is unfortunate we’ve lost a vast amount of Iowa’s biodiversity. There are a lot of problems when you have habitat loss to this scale,” Taylor said.
The lack of biodiversity, plus over-cultivation of farmland, has led to a reduction in water quality, in soil quality due to erosion and loss of species of the pawpaws and zebra swallowtails, he explained.
“The crazy thing is that people have known about this since the ’40s. They knew that this was going to be a problem. It’s just that no one was really doing anything to really save the important lands in Iowa. That’s where we feel we step in,” Taylor said.
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