Persimmons could use some good public relations. We forgive you if you’ve never heard of persimmons, much less tasted one; they’re not typically found in the produce aisle. Even if you have heard of persimmons, you probably think they aren’t fit to eat, at least not without being heavily frosted. That’s because when unripe, most contain astringent tannins similar to an acorn’s flesh or tea leaves, which can draw a person’s mouth painfully or create an unpleasant furry mouth-feel that lingers.
That’s a shame, as tasting a fully ripe persimmon is a delight to the tongue; and besides, who eats fruit green? The trick is to know when a persimmon is ripe. The persimmon holds the honor of being the last fruit of the season, sometimes waiting until October to ripen fully. You may be able to hurry things along by putting almost-ripe persimmons in a paper bag with an apple for a few days. They also color up well before ripening completely, and hang on the tree long after the leaves have fallen and frost has struck.
A ripe persimmon will be very soft, jellylike and nearly liquid, at which point its flavor is divine, often described as ripe apricot – mellow, sweet and spiced. I go a step further, likening it to the finest honeyed dried apricot dipped in dark chocolate, complex and delicious. It’s that nearly liquid consistency that puts an inexperienced person off, unsure whether the fruit has spoiled or frozen beyond salvage. No, that’s just how a ripe persimmon should be. If it’s not that soft, you’re risking a wooly tongue.
A long history
Persimmons have been around for a long time, both in the New World and the Old. Long before Captain John Smith described the delight of a ripe persimmon and the torment of a green one, Native Americans and even Ice Age mammals like mastodons and ground sloths relied on the fruit of the American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana). Deer, opossums and raccoons still do.
The tree grows as far north as southern Massachusetts and New York, stretches west to Nebraska, and covers the entire Deep South. As an aside, “diospryos” is Greek for “food of the gods.”
The name persimmon is said to be derived from the Algonquin ‘pasiminan,’ which means fruit that has been dried, as drying tends to denature the bitter tannins. American persimmons ripen through yellow and orange to an orange-red hue, with a bluish blush in a few cultivars, and range in size from as small as a cherry to as large as a small apple. They are round and squat, a bit like a tomato in shape.
On the other side of the globe, another species of persimmon, the kaki (D. kaki), has been cultivated for at least two millennia in East Asia, originating in China, Burma, the Himalayas and beyond, with cultivated varieties spreading across Korea into Japan. Marco Polo saw them being sold in the streets of what may have been Shanghai, and kaki persimmon trees alive today were planted as early as 1000 A.D. The persimmon is as popular in Asia as the apple is in America. Its color is similar to an American persimmon, but the fruit are often larger, and some varieties are conical or acorn shaped. Kakis tend to be sweeter but less complex in flavor. Some kakis do not contain tannins and can be eaten before they soften, when they are crisp, like an apple.
Both kaki and American persimmons grow slowly, reaching their full size of 60 to 100 feet after a century of growth. At this age, they can also yield ebony heartwood. They’re related to the true ebony tree and several tropical fruits like date plums and sapote, all members of the family Ebenaceae. Fortunately, they fruit much sooner than they form ebony, and at much smaller heights, beginning at age 3 and coming into full bearing within a decade.
Not persnickety when planted
Persimmon trees tolerate light shade, but prefer full sun, and should be spaced 20 feet apart from each other. They prefer a light sandy soil with good drainage, and appreciate a light feeding of compost, although they will do well without it.
Each tree is male or female, and while fertilization is not required for fruit set, quantity and quality will be improved by it. Remove all immature fruit for the first few years, so the tree can develop a strong root system. They grow well as far north as USDA Zone 4, where the question becomes not whether a tree will freeze in winter, but whether the fruit will ripen before the snow flies. American persimmons tend to be one zone hardier than kakis.
Persimmons are a variable lot, with great differences in fruit size and quality, and wild trees often yield wonderful treasures to foragers. When you plant your own trees, you can take matters into your own hands with the following recommendations.
Meader is an American persimmon, with small to medium sweet orange fruits, 11⁄2 to 2 inches in diameter. It ripens early for persimmons, often as early as September, lasting into November. As with all American persimmons, Meader is astringent. It is reliably self-fertile; if you want only one persimmon, this is the one.
Another persimmon worth considering is Szukis. Szukis is American, even if the name may suggest otherwise. Szukis is an excellent pollen source for other persimmons, and bears heavy crops of medium size, flavorful fruit with more flesh and smaller seeds than most. It also ripens early, beginning in September.
Pete Halupka, of Harvest Roots Farm and Ferment, near Falkville, Alabama, has a special interest in any of the discovered wild fruit treasures.
“One such selection I’ve made is an American persimmon my partner discovered on the side of Interstate 65 in north-central Alabama, which I’ve named ‘Interstate.’ I’ve chosen this persimmon out of the scores and scores of roadside foraging spots we frequent around north Alabama as the best candidate to save and propagate.
“The fruit is the size of a golf ball, with exceptional flavor and low seeds, and doesn’t burst when it falls from the tree, which allows for easy harvests off the ground or by shaking the trunk. The tree is the size of a (semi-dwarf) apple tree.” Pete will have scion wood of Interstate available on a limited basis in the spring. Contact him at email@example.com as well as @harvestrootsfarm on Instagram and Harvest Roots Farm & Ferment on Facebook.
Selecting a variety
Many varieties of kaki are available to choose from. The following are excellent choices for American growers.
Saijo bears small to medium acorn-shaped fruits with a rich sweet flavor, and it is considered a gourmet variety in Japan and one of the oldest. It is an astringent variety, and has its best flavor when cured artificially, either dried or stored with bananas, pears or apples. Saijo is self-fertile, growing and fruiting well as far north as Zone 6, developing into a tall tree over time.
Non-astringent Fuyu is a commercial kaki variety that also does well for a homestead. Fuyu fruit can be eaten while crisp and firm, a bit like an apple, or fully ripe, when it is mellow and sweet. However, Fuyu does not exhibit good cold hardiness, faltering north of Zone 8.
East meets west in Rosseyanka, a kaki/American hybrid that blends the cold hardiness of American persimmons with the mildness of kakis. It bears medium to large seedless orange fruit, marrying the rich complexity of American persimmons with the sweetness of kakis.
If you’ve never tasted a truly ripe persimmon, you owe it to yourself to sample one. The catch is that you will most likely need to grow it yourself, if you can call that a catch. One taste, and you’ll never want to be without a tree on your property, for fresh eating, puddings and breads.
Just be sure to wait until they’re ripe before you take that taste!
Folklore is rich with natural agents of winter weather prediction, from wooly bear caterpillars and praying mantises to ladybugs and groundhogs. The Ozarks credit the persimmon tree, or more accurately its seeds, with the ability to forecast the coming winter. Old-timers swear by them, and depending on the prediction, at them.
To divine the approaching season, crack some fresh persimmon seeds open in the fall, and examine the shape of the embryonic seedlings inside. Tradition holds that you will see one of three different cutlery shapes: a knife, a fork or a spoon. The knife promises a bitter cold, cutting winter. A fork predicts a winter of light, feathery snowfalls. And the spoon, or should we say, shovel? Get ready to shovel a lot of snow.
Does it work? Get cracking, and let’s find out. We’d love to hear your forecasts.
Andrew Weidman, a native of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, and a freelance writer, has been researching and writing about historic fruits and vegetables and gardening for several years. He is a member of the Back Yard Fruit Growers, and admits he probably gets a bit too excited about sampling new varieties of fruit.