The American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) is a well-known autumn fruit in North America. In Kentucky, they are just starting to ripen around the first of October, even though we haven't had any frost as of yet. It is a popular misconception that the fruit needs frost to ripen, when in reality it just takes a long time.

Native to the Eastern part of North America, the trees are quite hardy and can survive as far north as Michigan or Wisconsin, however the fruits may not be able to fully mature. The fruits do well along the Atlantic coast, south to mid-south and the lower mid-west. Fruits will reliably ripen in USDA Zones 6-11 and possibly somewhat further north. They grow between 30 and 80 feet, however, most of them tend to mature to the shorter side of the scale.

This was probably one of the first cultivated plants among the Native Americans. They are easy to grow from seed and the trees mature to fruit bearing size in as little as 4 years. The round, plum-like fruits were used in many ways and provided much needed Vitamin C to the early peoples. The pulp was mixed with dried meat, fats and grain to make pemmican as a travel or winter food and the seeds were pressed for oil. The astringent unripe fruit was used medicinally to stop bleeding and as a gargle for sore throats. They made tea from the leaves and a coffee-like drink from the ground seeds as well.

The native peoples also discovered that wildlife loved the sweet fruit as much as they did and often staked out hunting blinds near persimmon groves because deer found them irresistible. In fact, modern day hunters like to hunt near persimmon trees as well. Raccoons, skunks, possums and other small mammals enjoy the fruit too. Persimmon trees are also host plants for the fragile Luna and Regal moths and for no other reason, if you have the space in a corner of your property, plant one for them as their numbers grow smaller with each passing season.

The peoples of the 19th Century made beer, wine and brandy from the fruits and there are accounts of soldiers during the Civil War gratefully gathering persimmons to supplement their meager rations in the field. Pioneers and rural settlers harvested the fruit for food and they made use of the tannins as a mordant in their natural dyes. The wood is hard-grained and was used for tool handles and ornamental items. The heart wood in the oldest trees was a substitute for ebony, which is understandable since they are both in the Ebanaceae family. There is even some interesting weather lore concerning persimmons. The old legends say that the winter weather could be forecast by what one saw when they split the seeds open. This is actually the embryo of the tree that will germinate from the seed. If a spoon was seen, then the winter would be wet and snowy. If the center contained a knife, the winter would be brutally cold. A fork forecast a winter with light, fluffy snow. I cut open 4 different seeds and they all contained spoons, so the old folks say we'll have to 'dig ourselves out of the winter' this year.

persimmon

Wild persimmons are seedy and the pulp is a bit difficult to extract from around them, but if you have a tree nearby, it works great for quick breads. Use a banana or pumpkin bread recipe substituting persimmon pulp for the banana or pumpkin. Pick your persimmons when they turn orange, but before they soften. They will ripen just as well off the tree. Remember to leave the cap intact and not to stack them very high in storage as that will prevent them from rotting. When the fruits soften and darken a bit, you can mash them for the pulp and use them in recipes.

Persimmon trees like a sunny, well-drained location, but do best where there is plenty of moisture. There is one near my home that is near a diversion ditch for storm run-off that is quite healthy and full of fruit. Just remember that these trees do not make good neighbors to walkways and high traffic areas. The falling fruit makes a huge mess, attracts wasps, yellow jackets and small critters. They are not recommended for small, suburban lawns, but if you have enough property and enjoy foraging from the wild, by all means plant one. Stratify seeds for 3 months in cold storage before planting for easier germination. If grown from seed, remember to transplant when quite small as persimmons have a long tap root and do not transplant easily once they are very big. Just remember that persimmons are dioecious and the trees are either male or female. That doesn't make much difference in my neighborhood because we have so many wild ones in the woods and fencerows. There is a commercial variety called 'Meader' that is self-fruitful, so if in doubt, plant that one.

The American persimmon is an old and underused fruit that homesteaders and people who want to be self-sufficient should consider. The fruits and wood are useful in a number of ways, they attract wildlife and are relatively pest-free. The trees are easy to grow and bear fruit at a very young age. They may not be the best choice for an urban or suburban setting, but in rural areas with plenty of room, away from the home, they could be an asset.