“The Tree of a Thousand Suns” as one blogger put it. The persimmon (Diospyros virginiana). Have you eaten one? Ever stare at the larger Japanese variety in fruit bins at the store and wonder “what is this?” Does the word make your mouth pucker and tongue turn into sandpaper? This fruit has a reputation that goes back hundreds of years.
“The Tree of a Thousand Suns” as one blogger put it. The persimmon (Diospyros virginiana). Have you eaten one? Ever stare at the larger Japanese variety in fruit bins at the store and wonder “what is this?” Does the word make your mouth pucker and tongue turn into sandpaper? This fruit has a reputation that goes back hundreds of years. Persimmons were a staple in the diet of southeastern Native American tribes. Persimmons were eaten ripe, dried, baked in breads, mixed with meats or fermented into beverages. Europeans were perplexed with this New World fruit. In 1612 Captain John Smith of Jamestown fame remarked “If it be not ripe it will drawe a mans mouth awrie with much torment; but when it is ripe, it is as delicious as an Apricock.” Same year Virginia traveler William Strachey wrote “….when they are not fully ripe, they are harsh and choakie, and furre a man’s mouth like allam.” Persimmon had 12 or so names commonly used among Native Americans, all derived from the Algonquin language “pos” (choke) and “men” (fruit) or “choke-fruit” since the unripe fruit is quite astringent.
Green persimmons do have value. In 1863, a clever Texan mashed and boiled 12 green fruits, added a small piece of ferrous sulphate and created an indelible ink. Ferrous sulphate is also known as green vitriol or Copperas, the same chemical used to treat iron deficiency/chlorosis in affected plants.
Mark Catesby (historian of the Carolinas, Florida and the Bahamas) ate persimmons allowed to dry on tree limbs. In 1754 he wrote: “…the Fruit having then lost much of its watery Parts, is shriveled, candied, and very luscious, resembling in Taste and Consistence of Raisins of the Sun.”
I make an annual pilgrimage to a persimmon tree that grows in southeast Oklahoma. Persimmons are dioecious with male pollinator trees and female fruit trees. This sparsely leafed old female persimmon tree has borne fruit every year for decades. The first ripe persimmon I first see on the ground and rediscover the slickness and strong glue properties of moist persimmon pulp. I hunt around to find a branch, then look up in search of ripe persimmons. I swing at the round orange fruits dangling far out of reach while at the same time desperately try not to step on very ripe fruit already scattered over the ground.
This disturbs the yellow jackets, flies, bees and butterflies. One year I managed to dislodge and catch the perfect ripe blemish-free persimmon. Unbeknownst to me, across the street the old man in worn overalls was leaning on his fence and watched as I jumped around and waved my magic stick like a lunatic. After I said a loud alright, he shook his head, turned around and walked back to his house not saying a word. His wife, I guess, was standing inside, peering at me through the picture window from behind a slightly parted curtain. Eh. They must have eaten unripe persimmons judging from their crinkled expressions.
Persimmon is an underused wildlife fruit in natural landscapes. Bees, wasps, ants, butterflies, moths and beetles go for the colorful package of sugar. This is why one must be careful when picking persimmons, especially if a warm day. The fruits may have already been claimed by tiny wildlife. Persimmon fruit is relished by over 28 species of animals and birds. Squirrels, raccoons, white-tailed deer, skunks, turkeys, cedar waxwings, robins, mockingbirds and even pileated woodpeckers are sustained by this valuable nutritious food. Black bears are especially fond of persimmons as are opossums—the reason the persimmon tree is often called possum wood.
People think the fruit is edible only after a killing frost. Not so. As J. Troop (1895) stated “Our best persimmons ripen without frost, contrary to the general opinion that no persimmon is fit to eat until it has been well frozen.” The soft squeeze and deep orange color tests work well. If the skin separates from the pulpy orange flesh, you have a winner. If the fruit is dark, hard and leathery, you have a mummy.
You can drink your persimmons. In the 1700s persimmon beer was popular. A sweet heady flavor that improves over time was the comment by Luigi Castiglioni (1790). Persimmon beer made from persimmon bread makes a strong beer, but if using fresh persimmons, the beer has little alcohol. In the Confederacy, persimmon beer was called “possum toddy.” A few hardy souls have tried making persimmon wine, but recommend the skins first be removed. A comment in 1863: persimmon makes a fine brandy and beautiful white wine vinegar. Boiled persimmons can render a syrup that tastes better than sorghum. I, for one, love persimmons as well as sorghum on biscuits, so this could be a new recipe to add to my persimmon repertoire.
Check out http://nadiasyard.com/our-native-plants/persimmon-american-diospyros-virginiana-tree-of-a-thousand-suns/a beautiful blog with pics about the persimmon.
Perhaps you have seen persimmon seeds scattered on the road. During the Civil War persimmon seeds were used as buttons. The strong, durable seeds were also roasted, ground and brewed to make a hot drink with the flavor of coffee, so they say.
One enterprising on-line company has jumped on the persimmon seed bandwagon. They offer 5 persimmon seeds for $1.99 plus free shipping. The firm recommends their seeds be mixed with peat moss, placed in an airtight plastic sack and stored in the fridge for at least 2 months. Customer comments are split 50-50. Half succeeded in having little green sprouts, the other half had brown seeds. One wondered if the seeds were American or Oriental. The deer in our area could all become millionaires if they only knew… and their seeds come pre-wrapped in fertilizer. Locate some deer road scat and plant this fall.
Become the most accurate winter weather forecaster in your area. Begin with fresh persimmon seeds. Use a sharp knife and clamp tightly the seed with a pair of pliers. Slice straight down and cut the seed in half to expose the embryo inside. Look at the half with most of the embryo. If the tiny plant is spoon-shaped, think shovel. Lots of heavy snow will fall. The fork shape indicates light dry snow. The knife proclaims cutting sharp winds. Expect a dry cold winter.
I dissected several seeds and saw many spoons and a few knives. Go split a few seeds yourself. See how accurate your persimmon seeds are.
“My mother said every persimmon has a sun inside, something golden, glowing, warm as my face.” American poet Li-Young Lee.
Couldn’t put it better myself!