Captain John Smith wrote the following about the unusual orange fruit that the first settlers at Jamestown found: " If it be not ripe it will drawe a mans mouth arwie with much torment; but when it is ripe, it is as delicious as an Apricock."
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on January 4, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
There are two types of persimmons: astringent and nonastringent. Captain Smith writes about the astringent type, specifically the American Persimmon which has a rich, sweet, spicy flavor when ripe and is very bitter otherwise due to the presence of tannins in the unripe fruit. Tannins are a group of chemicals that occur in tea, red wine, acorns and a few other fruits before they ripen. As the fruit ripens, the tannins become inert and the astringency disappears. The common belief that it takes a frost to remove the astringency is incorrect. While cold exposure may serve to jump start the ripening process, a freeze can ruin fruit left on the tree.
Colonial settlers highly valued persimmons because they were easily accessible and high in pectin, so they could be turned into puddings without additional thickeners or sweeteners. Native Americans used persimmons in gruel, cornbread and pudding. They supposedly used them with the sweet pulp of honey locust pods to make an alcoholic beverage. They also mixed persimmons with corn meal and processed, ground acorns to make breads, soups and stew. Eastern tribes also prized dried persimmons as a nutritious winter food. The word persimmon comes from the Algonquian words for dried fruit -- putchamin, pasiminan or pessamin.
All persimmons are members of the ebony (Ebenaceae) family. The dark checked textured bark of mature trees has been described as looking like alligator hide and is attributed to the trees slow growth habit. The Diospyros virginiana sapwood is white and the heartwood dark brown to black like its ebony cousin. The wood is very hard and has been used for textile mill shuttles, billiard cues and golf club heads. The trees seldom grow to more than 2 feet in diameter and the sapwood is not resistant to decay so the tree is not valued for its lumber.
The American Persimmon
The scientific name of the American Persimmon is Diospyros virginiana, which can be loosely translated as "food of the Gods from Virginia". One common name of this tree is Possumwood because of opossum's fondness for the fruit. The tree is native to much of the eastern and central Unites States south of the Great Lakes, from southern Connecticut to Florida and east into Kansas and Texas. (Texas and northern Mexico have an additional variety of American Persimmon, Diospyros texana, known as the black persimmon.) The American Persimmon is a spreading deciduous tree about 40 to 60 feet tall with a 25 to 30 foot spread when growing in full sun. As an understory tree it will remain smaller in partial shade and is often the first tree to grow on disturbed land. The trees are long-lived and can begin bearing as early as ten years of age. The tree is both drought and salt spray tolerant and grows in zones 4 - 9. A true native, it thrives in almost any type of soil but prefers it to be deep, loamy and well drained.
The small flowers appearing in the late spring and are bell-shaped pistillate, fragrant, a light shade of yellow and a nectar source for bees. The flowers grow on one year old wood near the branch tips and are dioecious, either male or female. The distinctive alternate, simple elliptical leaves are smooth-edged, with pointed tips and bases up to 3 inches wide and six inches long with a dark green glossy upper surface. Fruit of the native persimmon is round and between 1 and 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Commercial varieties that have been developed to produce larger fruit are 'Early Golden', 'Garretson' and 'Meader'. Inside the fruit expect 4 or 8 large, smooth, flat seeds which are easily separated from the flesh when the fruit is fully ripe. The pulp is used in baking puddings, pies, breads, cakes and cookies in addition to just being eaten. The pulp dries well for later use and it is a good source of vitamin C during the winter when fresh fruit is scarce.
The tree provides Fall interest when the leaves turn bright yellow setting off the dark pinkish-orange fruit left on the tree. In winter the dark, textured bark stands out against the snow. The tree has a long taproot so it is not easily transplanted but is useful for erosion control. If the roots are disturbed the tree produces strong suckers. The fallen fruit if not consumed by critters can be slippery and may ferment.
Referred to as Asian, Oriental or Japanese, Diospyros kaki is an entirely different species of persimmon. Originating in China; it was introduced to Japan thousand of years ago. The first record of the seeds reaching the United States is in 1856 when they were sent from Japan by Commodore Perry. Grafted trees were imported in 1870 by the U.S. Department of agriculture and distributed to California and the southern states. It is likely that seeds also come to California in the middle 1800s with the influx of Chinese immigrants. This type of persimmon is now grown all over the world where the climate is warm enough for citrus: zones 7 to 10; the zones with the coldest winters producing the highest yield. Once the trees begin to bear, they can produce a huge crop which leads to alternate year bearing and danger of limb breakage if the crop is not thinned.
The oriental persimmon tree is smaller than the American variety; 15 to 30 feet tall with a spread of 15 to 20 feet and is also long lived. The D.kaki can be multi-trunked or single stemmed. The leaves are deciduous, alternate, with brown-hairy petioles, ovate-eliptic, oblong-ovate or obovate, 3 to 10 inches long and 2 to 4 inches wide. The tops of the leaves are leathery and glossy; the underneath, bluish-green. The flowers are similar to the virginiana with the exception of occasional male flowers on female trees and visa versa. Many cultivars begin bearing at 3 - 4 years - others at 5 to 6 years. Some varieties are self-fruitful while others require cross-pollinators. The fruit capped by the persistent calyx, can be round, acorn-shaped, oval or nearly square, and has thin, smooth, glossy pale-yellow to red or reddish-brown skin. The flesh of the astringent types, when fully ripe is juicy, gelatinous and seedless or has 4 or 8 flat, oblong seeds less than an inch long. The non-astringent type is pleasantly edible while it is crisp. The fruit is much larger than that of D. virginiana, up to 5 inches in diameter but most fruits of the 90-plus "important" cultivars are in the 2 1/2 to 3 inch size. The two most widely produced cultivars are the 'Hachiya' (astringent) and 'Fuyu' (non-astringent). Fully ripe fruit is eaten out of hand with a spoon for astringent varieties and like an apple for the nonastringent. Some like a squeeze of lime or cream or sugar on their fruit.
The Oriental persimmon does well on any moderately fertile land with deep friable soil. Young plants need plentiful watering and in general, the D. kakis are not as drought tolerant as the D. virginianas nor are they as able to withstand salt spray. Propagation can be by root suckers, grafting on to wild or onto close relatives or by simply planting untreated seeds. Grafting onto D. virginiana rootstock significantly increases cold tolerance. The leaves turn rich shades of yellow, orange or red in the Fall.
Much More Than Just Sweet
Persimmons are among the most nutritious of fruits. They contain glucose, protein, vitamins A and C, calcium, potassium, phosperous, iron, copper and manganese. They also contain the enzymes papain and bromelaine which are reported to have digestive qualities and the fruit is relatively low in calories. They are a good source of carotnoids and dietary fiber, very low in cholesterol and sodium. Native Americans have used persimmons in poultices to treat burns as the astringency tightens tissue and helps prevent the burn from oozing. The fruit is also slightly antiseptic and traditional American herbalists have used it to treat gastrointestinal bleeding. Oriental medicines use a decoction of the calyx and fruit stem to relieve hiccups, coughs and labored respiration. Tannin from unripe Japanese persimmons has been employed in brewing sake, in dyeing and as a wood preservative. Tea can be made from the leaves. The inner bark and unripe fruit have been used in treatment of fevers, diarrhea and hemorrhage. The fruit is used to make indelible ink.
Add to the nutrition and uses listed above that persimmons are hosts to the Henry's Elfin butterfly, Gray Hairstreak, Hackberry Emperor, Anglewings, American Buckeyes and Luna Moths. In addition, blue jays, bluebirds, bobwhites, catbirds, cedar waxwings, mockingbirds, phoebes, pileated woodpeckers, robins, turkey and quail are fond of the trees and wild critters such as raccoons, opossums, skunk, fox and deer feed on the fruit. When you factor in beautiful fall foliage, winter interest, the nurturing of butterflies, birds and critters, superb nutrition, the sweet, spicy taste (if you wait for it) of the fruit, its disease and pest resistance then add the possibility of some Appalachia style 'simmon beer or ground persimmon seed coffee, what could be a better choice for a new tree in your garden than the Diospyros -- "fruit of the gods"?
I am a native So. Californian transplanted to Connecticut about 10 years ago. I consider myself a "born-again Yankee" and thoroughly enjoy playing in the dirt here, now that I have all the rocks stacked up in piles and out of my way! I am very interested in the permaculture movement and am trying to put together a self-sustaining food "forest" on my city lot. By day I am a sales analyst and at night a Community College adjunct. I am also "mom" to Wallingford, King of the Nah-Nah Brotherhood of Manly Cats here on DG.