• Matt Wilson, director of Susquehanna’s Freshwater Research Institute, plants a pawpaw tree at the Center for Environmental Education and Research.

October 27, 2021

Susquehanna planted a grove of pawpaw trees at the Center for Environmental Education and Research as part of its continuing efforts in watershed restoration and in acknowledgement of the university’s location on indigenous land.

Pawpaws are the largest fruit native to the United States. With a creamy, custard-like consistency, their flavor is usually described as a cross between a banana and a papaya or mango. The fruit has many regional colloquial names – prairie banana, custard apple or hillbilly mango.

The trees are valuable for environmental and cultural reasons.

“If you plant lots of them in one area it will create a solid root mass and protect the stream bank,” explained Matt Wilson, director of Susquehanna’s Freshwater Research Institute. This holds the bank in place, preventing runoff from making its way into small streams and thus the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay.

Pawpaws were first cultivated by Native Americans and remain a tangible connection between displaced tribes and their ancestral lands. The fruits, which usually ripen in September, were a seasonal staple in Native Americans’ diets, and were eaten straight from the tree or dried into fruit leather to eat in the winter. Historical accounts from early expeditions to North America recount the fruit being eaten by Indigenous peoples and made into puddings.

Groves of pawpaw trees can still be found today, some of which are adjacent to ancient Native American historic sites. Though most commonly found in the Eastern, Southern and Midwestern United States, it should come as little surprise that the trees can be found as far west as Oklahoma, poignantly, along the Trail of Tears.

Susquehanna has launched a fundraising campaign to support the cultivation of pawpaw trees on campus. More information about the campaign and opportunities to give can be found here.

The land on which Susquehanna is located is the original homeland of the Susquehannock nation. During the 16th century forward into the years of British colonization, the Susquehannock were the most numerous people in the Susquehanna Valley. Throughout the following decades, war with neighboring tribes and epidemics steadily reduced their numbers (estimated to have been between 5,000 and 7,000 in 1600). In 1763, nearly all the remaining Susquehannock were massacred by colonists inflamed by accounts of a war on the Pennsylvania frontier in which the Susquehannock played no part.