The King of Flavor: American Persimmon

by Akiva Silver

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What is the best orange fruit loaded with vitamins that we can eat all winter? It’s not the orange, or the tangerine. It tastes even better (yes, I really think so), and the fruit grows on an exceptionally beautiful native tree, the American persimmon.

Diospyros virginiana is native to the eastern U.S., though it is mainly found in the southeast. It is a lover of abandoned fields, hedgerows, and sometimes in the forest understory.  Persimmons can tolerate extremes in soil, growing on dry eroded slopes, or in wet clay fields, and even in completely degraded strip mined lands. Persimmons are excellent controllers of erosion, using their ability to send out stoloniferous runners and establish deep root systems.

The species has a tremendous amount of genetic diversity, with individuals ranging from 20 feet at maturity to over 120 feet on rare occasions. Most trees to not grow very broad, they generally have a slender upright form.

The leaves of persimmons are dark green, simple, and oval. They are attractive, and have a slightly tropical look. The bark is rough, cracked, and furrowed, resembling alligator skin. The bark on persimmons is considered to be one of their best ornamental qualities. Though, the orange fruits hanging on in late fall are strikingly beautiful.

American persimmons are in the ebony family. Their dark heart wood is very tough and hard, commercially used for making golf club heads. It is also been traditionally used for demanding tasks, such as axe handles, and the shuttles of textile looms. 

The fruit of the persimmon is really what makes this tree stand out. Diospyros comes from the greek, meaning “fruit of the gods”. Anyone who has tasted a luscious, ripe persimmon understands. There are few things as sweet and flavorful as a good American persimmon. It is hard to overstate just how good a ripe persimmon is. They have escaped commercial cultivation because when the fruits are ripe, they are very soft, about the consistency of a loose bag of jam. And so, they can not be found at our grocery stores, but the backyard grower and forager can know this wonderful gift.

Unripe persimmons on the other hand, are terrible. They are so astringent, that it is truly horrible to eat one. So, wait until they are very soft to taste. They generally ripen late in the fall, sometimes hanging on the trees well into winter. The frozen orange fruits clinging to branches in the winter are a tremendous treat to the forager that is loaded with vitamins and flavor.

The persimmons value to wildlife is high and spreads broadly across many species. Possums, raccoons, deer, rodents, and numerous birds will not only eat persimmons, but they will often travel great distances to the trees. Persimmon trees are a magnet, drawing wildlife in from all directions. 

For those that want to grow our native persimmons, give them sun if you can (though they can tolerate shade, fruit set will be diminished). They are hardy to zone 4. Their pollination can be a little confusing. Some trees will be male, some female, and some will have both sets of flowers. Some females can set seedless fruit without the presence of a male, but most require it. Because of this, it is best to plant a grove of persimmons, rather than just one. Though, if space is limited, grafted trees of self-pollinating varieties can serve well, and one tree can suffice.

Persimmons can begin bearing at an early age, typically flowering at just 3 or 4 years old.

With so much lost in the past few centuries, lets add something exceptional and wonderful. I would love to see persimmon trees dotting the landscape around here more often. They are easy to grow, and a great gift to ourselves, our grandchildren, and the wild ones.

A persimmon hickory pie that was somehow even even tastier than we imagined it might be.

A persimmon hickory pie that was somehow even even tastier than we imagined it might be.