Nature of the Lake: American Persimmon

Persimmon is one of the sweetest treats that grow on a tree – if they’re ripe

Photo by Kenneth Boone

Heaven or hell.

That might be a slight exaggeration when talking about the tastes of our native persimmon fruit. But with 36 percent sugar, a ripe persimmon is one of the sweetest fruits growing wild in North America. And just ask anyone who has bitten into an unripened persimmon – after they’ve recovered from an overwhelming mouth pucker – whether that second descriptor fits the bill.

Persimmon trees go by a number of names: Common persimmon, American persimmon, eastern persimmon, Florida persimmon, possomwood, sugar-plum and ‘simmons.

Scientists know it as Diospyros virginiana, and its genus name means “fruit of the gods.” (Actually, it means grain of the gods, but you get the idea.)

Native Americans, U.S. settlers and modern-day foragers know it as free dessert falling from above.

This tree is endemic to the southeastern and central U.S., from Connecticut west to Kansas and south to eastern Texas.

Persimmon trees range from a 15-foot shrub-like tree to a large 100-foot tall showpiece, depending on soil. It grows in a wide range of soil types but requires rich, moist soil to reach its full potential and does so most often here in the gulf coast states. It is often found growing near sassafras trees and loblolly pines.

Persimmon bark is thick and gray to black in color. It is deeply channeled with blocky scales that some have described as looking like charcoal briquettes, making it easy to identify in the winter when fruit and leaves are long gone.

Persimmon is the only member of the 400-species ebony family that grows in our temperate climate. Interestingly, the color of persimmon wood varies greatly, from white to black, along with yellow, gray and green and a brindle or flecked pattern. The wood is very hard, heavy, strong and fine-grained and is used to make heads for wooden golf clubs and furniture veneer. The move to steel drivers by the golf industry in recent decades has saved many a persimmon tree. Woodturners, who use it to make multi-colored bowls and artwork, say that it has a slight odor of cracked black pepper as it is being turned and that it can buffed to a glass-like finish.

Persimmon heartwood, which often is streaked with black, is rare and valuable because it is not usually found in logs smaller than a foot in diameter and even larger logs have little heartwood.

Persimmons have fragrant flowers that are white to yellowish-green when they bloom in the spring. This tree is dioecious, which means that there are male and female persimmon trees and both sexes are usually required to produce fruit. On a male tree, the flowers appear in clusters; in a female tree, the flowers are solitary.

Persimmon leaves are green, 4-6 inch long ovals. They are simple, meaning they are not heavily toothed or partitioned, and alternate, meaning they are attached to the stem singly on alternate sides. These leaves usually turn yellow or orange in the fall before they drop.

That’s also when the persimmon fruit begins to ripen and turn orange or even reddish purple.

The fruits shown here were picked up off the ground near Lake Martin on Sept. 24, when most of the leaves were still green. Persimmons on the same tree ripen at different times and finding fruit on the ground in September does not rule out the possibility of finding ripe fruit under the same tree in November, when all the leaves have fallen.

Wild persimmon fruit is small, usually 1-2 inches in diameter, with one to eight seeds in each berry. Larger persimmons that are sometimes cultivated and sold in farmer’s markets are not our native fruits but related Asian varieties.

Before the native fruit is ripe – when it is hard to the touch and green or yellow in color – the flesh of the berries is shockingly astringent. This is due to a high concentration of tannins that dissipate as the fruit ripens. Biting into it will “turn your mouth inside out” and is sure to cause an Instagram-worthy expression.

Once the fruit is very soft to the touch – almost squishy – and deep orange or even reddish-blue or purple, it is ripe and absolutely delicious. Most of the time, the fruit will not fall from the tree until it is ripe, but if you’re gathering persimmons, check each one carefully. One astringent berry can ruin a whole batch of ripe fruits if the pulp is mixed together.

There’s an old folk tale that says persimmon seeds can predict the oncoming winter.

If you cut open a seed you will find pulp surrounding the beginnings of a root inside.

Legend says that:

n If the root is spoon-shaped (like a shovel) there will be lots of snow this winter.

n If the root is knife-shaped there will be cutting winds this winter.

n If the root is fork-shaped, winter will be mild.

According to Mother Earth News, persimmons are best preserved as “Persimmon leather” which sounds a little tough but is a very old idea akin to a modern grocery store staple: Fruit Roll-Ups.

It is simple to make your own. Just pick up ripe persimmons within a day or so of when they fall from the tree, then squeeze them through a commonly-available kitchen press called a “potato ricer” to separate the skin and seeds from the pulp. Persimmon pulp freezes well, so if you don’t have access to a large number of trees, you can freeze small quantities throughout the fall until you have enough to make a batch. Spread the pulp one quarter inch thick on a cookie sheet and dry at very low temperature in the oven. The resulting persimmon leather can be eaten as candy, cut up to sweeten cereals or substituted for raisins for a little home-grown Alabama taste in baked goods.

Persimmon leather was a sweet staple for Native Americans and settlers. It was often found hanging over rafters where smoke from cooking fires helped preserve it before the days of refrigeration.

Dried persimmon fruit may also be fermented with hops, cornmeal or wheat bran to make a form of beer and the dried, ground and roasted seeds have been used as a coffee substitute.

Persimmon berries are also a prized food for a number of animals including whitetail deer, wild turkey, squirrels, raccoons, opossums, raccoons, foxes, rabbits and other animals.

Rightly so – a perfectly ripe persimmon is a little slice of heaven. And an unripe persimmon is not.

Some information for this article came from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center,  Woodturners Unlimited, Mother Earth News and Wikipedia.