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Jane's Garden 7/27/14: Flag Pawpaw attracts Zebra Swallowtail butterflies

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Flag Pawpaw, Asimina obovata, is a native deciduous shrub in the Custard Apple family, Annonaceae. There are eight pawpaw species native to Florida, but only three available from nurseries. Flag Pawpaw likes full sun to highly filtered partial shade and sandy, well-drained soil in Zones 8 to 10. It ranges from the south part of the Florida peninsula north to the Georgia border and west through the Panhandle in sandhill and scrub habitats. It is endemic to Florida alone. Other pawpaws prefer mesic woodlands and/or coastal dunes.

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Often more than three inches long, the three large petals of Flag Pawpaw blooms hang down from the stems in bright white, attractive flowers in May locally. The profuse flower display is a delight in any garden. Alternate oval leaves have reddish stems, are 6 to 12 inches long and are wider above the middle of the blade. The slim trunks are gray to dark brown, and stems are a lighter color. Old trunks are rough. The plant seems short-lived in that stems tend to die after 5 or 10 years, but newer stems grow, so the plant may live up to 50 years.

The edible fruit is thumb-shaped, about 1 to 6 inches long, fleshy and yellow-green when ripe in June or July. Many animals eat the ripe fruit — from birds to possum, raccoons and humans. Gather fruit to eat fresh as soon as it starts to feel soft. If left until fully ripe, the wildlife will find it first.

Butterfly gardeners find the Flag Pawpaw, also called Big-flowered Pawpaw, indispensable: it is the only host plant for the caterpillars of the large Zebra Swallowtail butterfly. These caterpillar eat only pawpaw leaves and petals. Most flowers provide sweet nectar on which most butterflies feed.

A better butterfly garden provides the specific host plants needed for each species of caterpillar to feed, grow and develop. If 35 species of butterflies thrive in a neighborhood, then there must be the exact host plant for each species of caterpillars.

Marc Minno’s handy 2005 book “Florida Butterfly Caterpillars and Their Host Plants” has the back third dedicated to pictures of 185 caterpillar host plants. The middle third has 167 photographs and range maps of each caterpillar of all butterflies commonly breeding in Florida, along with a brief description and a list of necessary host plants. Rare, endangered species are omitted. This book is available in most libraries.

The Butterfly Rainforest at the Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida Cultural Plaza in Gainesville is an excellent source of local information on butterfly gardening in Central Florida. This destination makes an interesting day trip to learn more about butterfly gardening.

Flag Pawpaw does not propagate from cuttings. The best way I have found to grow Flag Pawpaw is by saving the fruit and letting the flesh rot off. Nick the seed case slightly before planting several seeds where desired. The seed often germinates the following spring.

Recently, I sowed several clusters of fresh, undried pawpaw seeds in a buffer zone bordering the east side of the Dunnellon Public Library. Flag Pawpaw had been an important component of the ecosystem before the property was developed. In the next few years, these seeds will grow into pawpaw shrubs to attract butterflies to drink nectar and lay eggs.

Jane Weber is a professional gardener and consultant. Semi-retired, she grows thousands of native plants. Visitors are welcome to her Dunnellon, Marion County, garden. For an appointment, call 352-249-6899 or contact JWeber12385@gmail.com.