Spring chores of tilling, fertilizing and planting a garden may be long vanished from your to-do list, but Mother Nature is still busy producing her own late-season garden. A wide variety of wild edibles are produced late in the year, and one of the most anticipated is the ripened fruit of the persimmon tree.
The common persimmon tree, Diospyros virginiana, is one of only a few species of the family Ebenaceae living in the United States. The genus name is derived from two Greek words—Dios, which refers to the Greek god Zeus, and puros, referring to wheat. The less literal translation means “food for the gods.” The common name appears to have originated from the Lenape Indians. They referred to it as “pasimenan” which we now call persimmon.
Thick-skinned & hard-hearted
The persimmon tree is native to the eastern United States, with a range from east Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana; east to Florida, north to Massachusetts, and west to Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and eastern Kansas. Persimmon trees can be found in fields, fencerows, ditches and many other unwelcoming environments. They form thickets by spreading from sucker roots, much like the common sassafras tree. In fact, they are commonly found growing among sassafras and eastern red cedar trees in dry locations. New habitats are colonized when they are planted outside of their native area as commercial or ornamental trees.
A persimmon tree typically ranges in height from 35- to 60-feet tall and can spread up to 35 feet wide. They grow largest on sandy, clay soils in bottomlands, and the record reached 132 feet tall with a 37-foot spread.
Persimmon trees produce some of the hardest wood known. Osage orange is the only producer of harder wood in North America. The heartwood of a persimmon is dark blackish-brown on mature trees, and is often used to make the heads of golf clubs, billiard cues and patterned flooring. It can take more than 100 years for the sapwood to turn to heartwood. The wood is very close-grained and can weigh up to 53 pounds per cubic foot when dry.
The bark of a persimmon tree is hard, thick and dark gray-black in color. It is textured in unique, square, scaly blocks and can develop to more than 2 inches thick. Many people compare it to alligator hide in texture and appearance.
Persimmon trees are rarely attacked by insects or damaged by animals. They are, however, vulnerable to ground fires and some disease. A fungus, called persimmon wilt, has caused severe losses among native persimmon trees in Tennessee and North Carolina. Exotic species of Diospyros, such as those found in your local grocery store, are resistant to the wilt, but do not produce fruits that are as delicious as the native species.
Their sweeter side
The fruit of a persimmon tree is actually a berry with several seeds and is about the shape of a plum. Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto even described the persimmon as a “delicious little plum.” Some people believe that the persimmon fruit is not edible until after a frost. This is false information as there are several early ripening varieties that can mature between July and September. However, the most common variety in the Midwest ripens when the temperatures begin to drop in the fall. The ripening often coincides with the fall hunting season, and stopping by the persimmon tree for a snack on the way from deer camp to a tree stand is often as traditional as the camp itself.
If you ever eat an unripe persimmon, you will know it. The famous Captain John Smith said, “If it is not ripe, it will draw a man’s mouth awrie with much torment.” The bitterness actually comes from the astringent tannin in the fruit. When ripe they become wrinkled and the pulp becomes mushy.
In general, there are two types of people in the world, those that have never heard of a persimmon and those that have suffered the puckering effect of an unripe fruit offered to them by a seemingly generous friend.
Animals also eat the fruit of persimmon trees, including hogs, fox, raccoons, skunks, opossums, woodchucks, squirrels, mice, deer and quail. Many a wise and successful deer hunter has placed his stand overlooking a persimmon tree and waited on a deer to give in to the yearning of its taste buds.
As told in story and song, “Most ‘possum hunts end at the foot of a ‘simmon tree.” In Audubon’s famous picture of opossums, he painted them high up in the tree eating the persimmons. Animals that eat the fruit help to disperse persimmon seeds to areas far from those reached by the sucker roots.
The persimmon tree provides food beyond its fruit. Although cattle avoid the leaves, they are readily eaten by wild turkeys. The leaves can also be used to make tea that tastes much like sassafras tea. Some people even roast the seeds and grind them to make persimmon coffee. According to historical records, Confederate soldiers were among those that used the coffee substitute.
As you head to the woods this fall, take notice of those bright orange fruits hanging temptingly from the alligator-skinned tree. If they resist when you give them a gentle squeeze between your thumb and finger, turn and run from those bitter little fruits. Or better yet, save a few for your “friends” to try when you get home. If they squish with ease and feel as if they might be too mushy, then they are ripe for the picking. Eat a few while you are there, and then grab a bag full to take with you and make some delicious persimmon bread or cookies. Your family will thank you and more people will come to appreciate the wonderful autumn fruit produced by the persimmon tree.
2 Cups Persimmon Pulp
2 Teaspoons Baking Soda
1 Teaspoon Lemon Juice
3 1⁄3 Cups Flour
1 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Teaspoon Baking Powder
1 Teaspoon Allspice
1 1/2 Cups Raisins
1 Teaspoon Ground Cinnamon
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Nutmeg
2 2⁄3 Cups Sugar
2⁄3 Cups Vegetable Oil
1 Teaspoon Vanilla
1 Cup Chopped Walnuts
Mix persimmon pulp, baking soda and lemon juice in a large bowl. Set aside. Sift together flour, salt, baking powder, allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg. Set aside. Beat eggs until slightly thickened. Beat in sugar, then oil and vanilla. Add flour and persimmon mixtures. Stir in walnuts and raisins. Pour into two greased loaf pans and bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes at 350 degrees.
Place 1-2 teaspoons of dried, crushed persimmon leaves in a teapot. Fill the teapot with hot water and let the leaves steep for five minutes and serve. Pour slowly or use a small strainer to keep the leaves from going into the cup. For a subtler flavor, use fewer leaves or more water.