Contributed by: Linwood Watson, MD, Haliwa-Saponi (and small time orchardist)
Most people figure that once late fall sets up, tree fruits are winding down in production. There is a succulent exception though – the American persimmon, or Diospyros virginiana. While I am not a Latin scholar, that name translates to “fruit of the gods….from Virginia”. Let’s delve into why this amazing tree deserves that name.
The American persimmon is a hardwood, no make that very hard, tight-grained tree. In fact, before graphite was used, old time golf club heads/shafts were made from American persimmon wood. More importantly though, this dark, blocky barked tree yields an amazing fall delicacy – the American persimmon. While perceptions vary, a truly ripe persimmon has a unique apricot tanginess with the “depth” and richness of a date. In my opinion, only a ripe fig can rival the richness of flavor in an American persimmon. Other fruits taste sugary and 2-dimensional, not 3-dimensional like the persimmon. While it will be discussed more in a moment, note that a ripe American persimmon is very mushy. So mushy in fact, that the fruits do not ship well and, aside from perhaps at some roadside fruit stands, you would be unlikely to see them in a grocery store. If you see a persimmon in a store, chances are it is the Asian persimmon, which tends to be more forgiving to eat when not fully ripe and also has a firmer exterior that allows shipping and longer “shelf life”. While at first this seems inconvenient, just think: this gives you another solid reason to visit and talk to your grandparents, as you can ask if they know where a persimmon tree is located!
Depending on the wild variety cultivated or found, the “season” for American persimmons ranges from late August to even January around “old Christmas”. I can speak from personal experience in horticulture Zone 7b in North Carolina: the “Prok” variety usually has ripe fruit in the last week of August, about the time you are sick of the heat and humidity and college football is about to kick off. Around mid-September the “Yates” variety will come off [? Be ready?]. Many times the leaves will fall off the tree and by November the woody-stemmed clinging fruit will give the persimmon tree the look of a decorated Christmas tree, as the sparse dormant branches are loaded with fiery orange-red orbs of fruit.
While ripe American persimmons are wonderful, there is a caveat that taints the persimmon wisdom and folklore. Persimmon ripeness is much like pregnancy – it is either a “yes” or a “no”.
There is no partially ripe.
There is no partially ripe.
Guess what? There is no partially ripe!
An unripe American persimmon, in about 3-10 seconds, will pucker your mouth (some would say invert your mouth, to put it more brashly) due to its astringency. As such, many people, including some elders, have avoided the persimmon (for which the possums likely say ‘thank you’!). While it is always best to talk to experienced wild persimmon samplers or consult trusted foraging manuals, here are some quick (and hard earned puckered tongued) tips:
Recall that Asian persimmons are usually not astringent, and can be eaten tastily even while firm like an apple.
I favor picking American persimmons off the ground to enhance their chances of being ripe. Surprisingly, even in fire ant country the fruits can sit for a while on the ground fairly undisturbed – probably because insects/animals are also avoiding the astringency!
Many fallen ripe persimmons have a “bruised” blue/black area. This is not a sign of spoilage; rather, it is an encouraging sign of ripeness.
Many ripe fruits have a slightly shriveled look, and the skin will easily peel off/tear, like a 90 year old’s forearm skin.
If you have a batch of ground-dropped fruit that from tasting you know is not ripe, you can keep them in the fridge for a week or so to allow the required last bit of ripening.
Health note: While rare and this should not discourage one to seek the unique nutrition of American persimmons, always use care in using “ground drop” fruit, as animal/human feces contamination can pose an E. coli risk. While the skin does peel easily, one can still rinse off the fruit, then place it in the fridge for the final ripening.
The usual final “harvest” is a cache of persimmon pulp, to be used in various culinary treats ranging from breads to puddings, to pies and cookies. Recall that the pulp can be frozen, and used later in the season. Note that some people also make coffee from the persimmon seeds – but you may need “diamond tipped” grinders because the seeds are ultra hard.
The usual maxim of “ only pick persimmons after frost” is actually not true – but your chance of finding grounded American persimmons after frost is greater, especially in the Southern US.
Personal note – if you chop firewood in the late fall/early winter, few things rival a snack of American persimmons and frost grapes. Remember this on any forest forays!
So, the next time a great uncle or aunt mentions a local persimmon tree, don’t be timid. Seek out this supreme source of Vitamin C, potassium, phosphorus, and iron. Offer to help peel out the pulp and cook a family dish. Try some of the recipes below. Most of all, pray and thank the Creator for these bountiful plant gifts that cloak their greatness in lip puckers until the time is right! If you think about it, we all have been blessed by the Creator, we just need the eyes, mindset, and wisdom to look around us.
1. Persimmons for Everyone by Eugene and Mary E. Griffith. Published by the North American Fruit Explorers, 1982.
(Note while not omnipotent in my readings I dare say this may be the most complete listing of persimmon recipes ever collected in one book. Amazon availability may be limited, so keep an eye out at old/used bookstores for this gem of a book. Or better, yet, join the Fruit Explorer group.)
2. Incredible Wild Edibles- 36 Plants that can change your life. By Samuel Thayer. Published by Forager’s Harvest 2017.
(Note: Thayer is a “god” among foraging literature. He has survived the test of time and most importantly, he eats his own foraging. All of his books are solid, but this book’s devoted persimmon chapter is a beautiful summary.)