Gardens of the Cross Timbers: Knife, spoon, fork?
My neighborhood is recovering from the ice event. Electricity again flowed to the last houses Friday before Halloween. The generators are off and the roars have ceased. The county temporarily closed the road to deal with downed trees and branches. Many swords of Damocles dangle in the air from trees caught off-guard. My yard has scattered stacks of plant debris. The cardinals and other songbirds adopted and have taken up residence in the brush pile closest to their feeders. That one will be left alone for bird winter digs.
Oh the post Halloween let-down. Helga the Viking Witch stood guard on the front porch, protected by glowing pumpkins all around her Halloween night. The ginger root resembled a gnarly hand and joined right in with the haunted house centerpiece on the table. “The Haunting” (1999) was played on TV that night. In the remake of “Haunting of Hill House” (1963), this newer film increasingly depended on special effects as the movie droned on. The setting was actually in the massive Belvoir Castle in England circa 1066, but the film supposedly took place in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. Despite the fact poor Owen Wilson lost his head, it was cool to watch the house come alive.
Can persimmons really predict the winter weather? This year many persimmons were ripening before any frost. I ate persimmons from Martin Nature Park, Coker Road outside Shawnee and one rural neighborhood which actually didn’t cut down the persimmons during development. We need more nature-minded developers like this. The weather has been in a rather confused state for months, so I decided to slice in half a few persimmon seeds to see what the embryos might fearlessly predict. This was a deep project: deep into woods, deep into grass, deep into overripe persimmon mush. Well worth the sacrifice.
I love native persimmons. If it’s October or early November, wherever I am I hunt for those orange balls in the sky. The persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) has been described as the “Tree of a Thousand Suns.” Tasty wild persimmons have been picked in Arkansas, Missouri, Maryland, eastern Oklahoma and even the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The barrier islands regularly get swamped with seawater and hurricanes, probably why those persimmons have a special flavor.
Most of the 750 different species of persimmons are tropical members of the Ebony family. The five varieties of native persimmons are much tougher than many of their cousins. They can tolerate temps well below zero with no winter injury. The Oriental Japanese persimmons (Diospyros kaki sold in stores are more delicate. Ten degrees Fahrenheit and they’re toast.
The dark, very hard persimmon wood is used in furniture, driver golf heads, drum sticks, and billiard cues. Our native American persimmon is the tallest of all the persimmon species, ranging from 35 to nearly 70 feet in height.
Being dioecious, both male and female persimmon trees produce scented small clusters of bell-shaped greenish-yellow flowers in early spring. Some renegades make perfect flowers with both male and female parts. The persimmon refuses to follow the rules, but the bees and pollinators flock to the blooms regardless.
The glossy, leathery leaves of the persimmon are relished by not only by white-tailed deer but the larvae of the Luna moth and Hickory Horned Devil moth (Regal moth). If you have ever seen that caterpillar, you’d not forget it. Over four inches long and bright green with an orange tail and orange appendages curving out from the back of its little orange head. The caterpillar is entirely harmless but its fierce appearance keeps it safe from predators that visit persimmons, hickories, sweetgums, pecans and sumacs.
Persimmon leaves, when folded, look like tacos. The distinctive dark gray outer layer of the trunk, formed from chains of thick bark, are broken into chunky squares and rectangles. This is one tree that can be identified in winter after the leaves have fallen. Some fruit may still be hanging around. Skunks, coyotes, raccoons, opossums, quail, mockingbirds, cedar waxwings, turkeys, fox and other critters also adore persimmons.
Native persimmon trees are considered pioneer species. As open fields transition toward woodlands, the slow-growing persimmon is an early colonizing thicket former. It can tolerate the black walnut which usually eliminates other competitive plants. The persimmon forms a deep taproot, making the sapling difficult to transplant. Most persimmon trees on the market are the more temperamental Japanese persimmons. The natives are harder to find so this is a good time to go on a persimmon seed field trip. The female trees are easy to spot right now while loaded with fruit.
Collect fresh persimmon seeds and soak in warm water a few days to help remove the dried flesh (or store in a cool, dry place until later). Wrap the seeds in moist paper towels and put in plastic jar in fridge 2-3 months. Keep the paper dampish. Next spring, bury each seed 2 inches deep in potting soil. Use tall pots with drainage holes. Place in warm, bright location. Keep soil dampish. If you’re lucky, small seedlings will appear in 6-8 weeks. Germination hovers around 30%. Plant several seeds in separate pots. Water the little guys each week, but wait until the top soil becomes a little dry. Transplant seedlings at the end of the growing season in autumn. Mulch. Fruits in 3 to 5 years.
The persimmon seed prediction for winter 2020…are you ready? Quick review. Knives mean cutting sharp dry winds. Spoons or shovels indicate moisture or plenty of snow. Forks predict mild winters with little snow. My persimmon seed embryos look like thick bladed knives. Does this mean sharp dry winds interspersed with bouts of snow? We’ll see.
The Farmer’s Almanac calls this winter “The Winter of the Great Divide.” Northern half of the country will be cold and snowy. The desert southwest remains dry. The east turns chilly to cold, wet to white. In between (New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana), expect wild swings between mild and tranquil to cold and wintry. Temperamental is the term they use. Sounds like our normal type weather here!
The persimmons continue to ripen and fall to the ground. Use care and select the softest and most fragrant. Rich orange rewards are wrapped around every seed.
“If it be not ripe, it will draw a man’s mouth awry, with much torment, but when it’s ripe, it is as delicious as an apricot.” Captain John Smith (1624).
Becky Emerson Carlberg, graduate of Oklahoma State (Plant Pathology) is a teacher, artist, writer as well as certified Oklahoma Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at Becscience@att.net.