Wild American Persimmons
Ask any southerner if they know about persimmons.....
The reaction you'll get will be either love or hate (in the key of Ewwww).
Some people are totally smitten and think fondly of the autumn ritual of collecting or cooking with the delicate and fragrant fruit. However, at the other extreme, one might hear that someone took a single bite, which turned out to be one bite too many. The usual culprit for the latter reaction is that persimmons must be perfectly ripe to be edible.
Herein lies the irony. When the delicate and delectable fruit is perfectly ripe, it falls to the ground, often 40 to 50 feet (for the native variety). Needless to say, the finally and perfectly ripe persimmon does not take the landing very well.
Persimmon fruit has been described as having the overtones of cinnamon and allspice, or as "pumpkin mixed with honey and plum", and yet others have described it as a "wet, spicy apricot". However, tasting an unripe american persimmon will make you want a strong drink: highly astringent, bitter and otherwise totally disagreeable.
There are many more future posts in the works about history, uses, recipes that I would like to explore in the future. In the meantime, this blog post will discuss harvesting and planting American Persimmons. The good news is that it's super easy! The not so good news is that it can take a long time for a tree to bear, depending on the situation.
Diospyros virginiana aka American Persimmon. Also known in the appalachian regions as “simmon”, “possumwood”, or “sugar plum”.
The American persimmon is distinct from the Asian persimmon (diospyros kaki), and the Texas persimmon (diospyros texana), which have different growing habits as well as quite different fruit.
American persimmon is a native fruit tree, which grows from 30 to 80 ft tall. Commonly found as an understory beneath tall deciduous hardwoods such as tulip poplar, maple, oak and others.
It's native range is all over the southeast US, from Connecticut to Florida, and well into the Midwest regions. The tree is ornamental and useful in landscapes, in particular, woodland areas where thickets or groves are desired. Usually a male and female tree are necessary for fruiting.
Generally, wild persimmons contain many flat glossy dark seeds, so all around, they are fairly easy to collect, pulp, and extract seeds from. That is a triple win for wild food gatherers and botanical enthusiasts.
~Since the fruit is often extremely soft, gather into large shallow containers. I find medium and large plastic strawberry containers are perfect. They allow 2 - 3 layers of fruit, which can be closed for protection and stacked to make space in a harvesting basket.
~Find the right time of day to harvest for best results. Technically, you are sharing them with almost everything else in the woods, and this means knowing their favorite times to forage too. Noon to early afternoon seems to be the best time, since deer can be anytime, and bear, possums, racoons, and anything else are likely to be enjoying them in the evening and through the night.
~ Don't get greedy..... Nothing goes to waste in the forest. If it's too icky to pick up, then it's definitely too icky to pulp or eat later.
The trees themselves are not fussy, as long as the soil is well drained. They also seem to be tolerant of full sun, and (in our case) part shade; as an understory under tall deciduous hardwoods on our mountainside.
Plant fresh seeds in fall or spring into the ground or into pots.
Persimmon seeds require 90 days of cold stratification (i.e. Winter), and will sprout after that period (in the Spring).
Other interesting things to know about persimmon:
1. The fruit is incredibly valuable to wildlife.
2. Seriously, we sometimes have to elbow a deer or two out of the way to get to our persimmons.
3. The fruit and other parts have historically been very important to the First Nations.
4. The hard and strong wood is very useful and is a distant relative of Ebony.
5. The Asian persimmon is a favorite and popular tree known for its beauty and has been cultivated for centuries. The are many named cultivars.
6. Persimmon leaves make a nourishing and pleasant tea that is popular in Asia.
7. Persimmon seeds were roasted and used as a coffee substitute back in the day (experiment at your own peril).
8. Persimmon trees are lovely in the autumn, as the leaves turn gold and contrast nicely to the distinctive black/grey bark.
9. While not 'the' sugar plums of poems and ballets, they are known in some regions of the Appalachians as 'sugar plums'.
10. To quote Samuel Thayer in his amazing book Incredible Wild Edibles: "Diospyros virginiana roughly means 'fruit of the gods, from Virginia", so it's proof that something does not have to be exotic to be cool.
One of the best and most comprehensive descriptions of American persimmons is in Incredible Wild Edibles by Samuel Thayer.
Eat Your Yard by Nan. K. Chase also has a fantastic profile from a growing perspective.