In the Garden:
Native persimmon trees are easy to grow, attractive in the landscape, and full of fruits traditionally made into pudding.
Paean to Persimmons
For anyone who has ever eaten an unripe persimmon, it may be difficult to grasp that the genus name, "Diospyros," means "food for the gods." Yet when frost tinged and squishy ripe, the native persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) loses its astringency and, indeed, has a luscious and indulgent quality. There are some 200 species from around the world, mostly tropical or subtropical plants, with the 3-inch fruits of cultivars of Diospyros kaki widely available in in supermarkets. Our native tree grows quite readily, providing beauty in the landscape and a great tradition in the kitchen.
Hardy to -20 degrees F, Diospyros virginiana has been found growing in the wild from Connecticut to Florida and west to Kansas and Texas. Although there are specimens that have reached upwards of 90 feet, most mature native persimmons slowly reach a height of 30 to 40 feet with a slender, oval-rounded crown from 20 to 35 feet across, and somewhat pendulous branches. The oval, pointed, 3- to 6-inch leaves are a lustrous dark green, with the fall color ranging from yellow to reddish purple. As the tree matures, the gray-black bark becomes thick and hard with distinctive square, scaly blocks.
Persimmons are dioecious, which means that they produce either male or female flowers, although sometimes both sexes are present on the same tree. Because of this, it's best to plant at least two trees unless you choose a self-fertile variety. The greenish white flowers, borne in May and June, are not particularly noticeable by people but relished by bees for their nectar. The 1- to 1-1/4-inch rounded fruit ripens to a brownish orange from September into late October and contains several hard, brown seeds (except for seedless varieties).
How to Grow
Persimmons readily grow from seed and are not terribly particular about the site, as evidenced by their widespread distribution by animals into fields, fencerows, and woodlands. They are quite somewhat difficult to transplant, however, so it's best to select either very young bare-root plants or transplant them as balled-and-burlapped plants. They are drought tolerant and not particularly bothered by insect pests.
There are some forty-plus named varieties of the native persimmon, mainly differentiated by size and flavor of fruit, as well as ripening time. Notable among the varieties are 'Early Golden' and 'John Rick', which are very hardy and widely used for commercial production. 'Meader' is hardy to -35 degrees F and self-fertile with very sweet, large fruit that is usually seedless.
Facts and Folklore
A wide range of wild and domesticated animals relish the persimmon crop, and it's always a challenge to get to the wild persimmons before the cows, deer, opossums, and raccoons. From my own observations, birds prefer to wait until the fruit is frozen and still hanging on the tree in December and January. The pileated woodpeckers delight in hanging upside-down from wind-whipped branches while munching lunch.
Belonging to the ebony family, persimmon wood is very heavy, hard, strong, and close-grained. For many years it was used to make golf club heads. The wood also is used for billiard cues, shuttles for textile weaving, flooring, and veneer.
Native Americans ate and cooked with persimmons. The Cherokees baked sweet loaves with the fruit. The Algonquins are credited with the common name, from their word "putchamin," "pasiminan," or "pessamin," depending on the dialect.
Supposedly the seeds have weather-predicting qualities, although the interpretations vary. When the seeds are cracked open, there will be one of three "silverware" shapes. A spoon shape indicates there will be plenty of snow to shovel. A knife shape means either a cold winter or a mild winter that is easily sliced through. A fork shape might be interpreted as very little snow or abundant snowfall.
Another use for a persimmon tree is as a remedy for the itch of poison ivy. Remove a few twigs from a persimmon tree, cover with water, and boil for 20 minutes. Strain and cool the liquid. Several applications should dry the rash.
During the economic hard times of the Civil War and Reconstruction, some households made a coffee substitute by roasting and boiling persimmon seeds. The fermented fruit also has been used to make beer.
No autumn would be complete without the ritual of eating persimmon pudding at least once. The pulp is separated from the seeds, then baked into a dense concoction somewhat resembling a cross between pumpkin pie and fudge and always served with whipped cream.
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