America's
Puckery
Persimmon
Discover
Early American Life Magazine
December 2006

Text and Images by "Wildman" Steve Brill

AN IMPORTANT FOOD SOURCE FOR NATIVE AMERICANS AND COLONISTS, WILD PERSIMMONS REMAIN A WONDERFUL, RENEWABLE RESOURCE TOO OFTEN OVERLOOKED. HERE'S WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW TO ENJOY THIS MAGNIFICENT WILD FRUIT YEAR AFTER YEAR.
American Persimmon Fruit
Late in ripening, persimmons often cling to the tree well after the first frost, which has misled many people to believe that frost was necessary for taming the tart taste of the immature fruit. Although a ripe persimmon lacks the shelf appeal of commercial fruit (like Red Delicious apples), it can be a taste delight.

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," wrote Captain John Smith about an unusual orange fruit the settlers in Jamestown discovered. Indeed, the persimmons found by the first Virginians looked like apricots-on the brown side of orange and about the size of a small plum.

Unripe, the flavor suited only those on the far side of starvation, a place America's first colonists too often found themselves. But, resourceful as they were, they (with the advice of their native hosts) learned how to find the puckery fruit to help them through the chilly winter months when the larder was otherwise bare. Left to ripen on the tree, the colonists noted the persimmon was "very sweet and pleasant to the taste, and yields on distillation, after fermentation, a quality of spirits."

Colonial Americans valued persimmons highly because they were easily accessible and high in pectin, so they could be turned into puddings without additional thickeners or sweeteners. Country folk mixed "simmons" with cornmeal and brewed this into "simmon beer." They made vinegar with the fruit, and toasted the seeds to make a coffee substitute. In Appalachia, people also brewed beer with the dried seeds.

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.

As a foraging teacher who loves to cook, I've used persimmons in fruit salads, pastries, jam, ice cream, pancakes, sauces, cookies, breads, smoothies, and cakes. It's hard to go wrong with this fruit in virtually any dessert recipe.

Immature Persimmons
Immature wild persimmons are green, about the size of a cherry with a point on the bottom. In late August and early September, these persimmons photographed in Missouri show the first signs of a color change that hints they are ripening. At this stage, however, the fruit is too astringent to eat

AMBROSIA

For Captain Smith, who saw America through eyes familiar only with European fruit, the persimmon was another kind of plum. According to Smith's report to England: "Plumbs there he of three sorts. The red and white like our hedge plumbs. But the other which they (the Indians) call Putchamins, grow high as a palmetto. The fruit is like a medlar, it is first green, then yellow and red when ripe."

The scientific name is Diospyros virginiana, which roughly translates to "food of the gods from Virginia," and this scientific name is no hype. The burnt-orange colored, plum-sized, globular fruit, which contains one to six flattened, brown seeds and grows from one to one-and-a half inches across, is truly divine—very sweet and creamy, with a flavor like a combination of dates, plums, apricots, and cherimoyas. This native fruit is quite a different beast from that you may find on supermarket shelves, the larger, insipid, commercial Asian persimmon.

An entirely different species, Diospyros kaki, the Japanese persimmon, originated in China, leaped to Nippon thousands of years ago, then, in the early 1800s, came to California, likely with Asian immigrants. Two varieties fill store shelves, both resembling medium-sized orange tomatoes. ‘Hachiya’ (which dominates the market) is pointed at the bottom and tastes somewhat astringent. ‘Fuyu’ has a flat bottom and a sweeter taste. Neither has the rich flavor of the smaller native American fruit.

Persimmon trees are available for the garden, but nearly all are Asian varieties. The popular exception is ‘Meader,’ which is an American/Asian hybrid. ‘Meader’ is self-fruitful and hardy into New England, but purists say its fruit lacks the succulence of the native variety.

THE RACOON AND THE PERSIMMON

A Native American legend tells how the raccoon acquired a wonderful but costly gift. A raccoon can tell exactly when a persimmon is ripe to eat. A very important skill, for if the fruits are picked one day too early, they are sour enough to pucker one's mouth, picked a day too late and they are too mushy to eat.

According to legend, a man was called by the Great Spirit to take a journey. He was told to leave at once. The Great Spirit explained to the man that this was a journey of the spirit and not the body. He must not stop to eat or drink until the task was completed.

This particular man was, unfortunately, not quite ready for such a spiritual journey, for when he came to a grove of persimmon trees, he could see that the fruit was perfect for eating. He could not resist the temptation. The man stopped and ate till he could eat no more.

The Great Spirit was furious. He told the man he would never complete the journey because he had disobeyed. The Great Spirit told the man that he would spend the rest of his days scurrying around the earth as a small, furry creature. The man begged and pleaded for forgiveness, but the Great Spirit remained firm. He turned the man into a raccoon-an animal that leaves footprints like a human, uses his hands like a man, and has the ability to always know when the persimmons are just right for picking.

Native American folk tale, courtesy of Crawdad Creek Wildlife Rehab.

BETTER THAN SWEET

Persimmons are among the most nutritious of fruits. They provide glucose, protein, vitamins A and C, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, iron, copper, and manganese. They also contain the enzymes papain and bromelaine, well known from their presence in papayas and pineapples and used in natural digestive enzyme preparations.

Native Americans applied unripe persimmons in poultices to treat burns. The astringency tightens tissue and counteracts the burn's tendency to ooze. The fruit is also slightly antiseptic. In like manner, traditional American herbalists boiled the unripe fruit to make an astringent decoction (a tea made by boiling) to treat gastrointestinal bleeding.

Persimmon's fruit is not the only part of the tree that has proven useful. Native Americans boiled the tree's highly astringent cambium or "inner bark" (the living green layer of tissue just under the outer bark) to make a decoction they used as a gargle for a sore throat and as a mouth rinse for thrush (a yeast infection). They used the same decoction externally as a wash for warts and skin cancer.

The fine-grained wood of the persimmon reveals its family heritage. It is a member of the otherwise-tropical ebony family. Early American textile mills used the wood for making shuttles. Strong yet flexible, it still makes some of the best billiard cues and golf club heads.

Cut-leaf Blackberry

In spring the persimmon tree blooms with flowers that are bright yellow and bell-shaped. Each fertilized flower will become a single orange persimmon late in the autumn. The flowers and mosaic-like bark of the persimmon tree will help you find trees to forage under when the fruit has ripened.

NATIVE HARVEST

American persimmon trees grow wild in much of the eastern and central United States south of the Great Lakes, extending north to southern Connecticut and east into Texas. Look for them in rich bottomlands, in old fields, along roadsides, in dry woods, and on rocky hillsides.

They're often cultivated in parks, botanical gardens, and campuses within and beyond their natural range, and with global warming, their range will certainly be expanding northward.

Persimmon trees grow from 15 to 100 feet tall. You can identify them (when not in fruit) by their unique bark and distinctive leaves. The bark divides into thick, gray-black blocky squares about one-and-a-half inches across in a mosaic pattern. The elliptical leaves are smooth-edged, with pointed tips and bases. They grow alternate (singly configured) up to three inches broad and six inches long. The dark green glossy upper surface contrasts with the lighter underside. The closely related Texas persimmon (D. texana), with a smooth, gray bark and black fruit, is also an excellent edible.

Native persimmons trees are either male or female and are not self-pollinating. That is, female flowers usually can't fertilize themselves. To produce fruit, there must be a male tree nearby to make pollen, which is transmitted by insects and wind. (Imported persimmon varieties and hybrids are self-fruitful.)

Both sexes bear fragrant, pale yellow, four-parted, bell-shaped flowers when they bloom in late spring. The fertile flower, which grows on female trees and produces fruit, has male and female parts. It grows three-quarters of an inch long with eight stamens (pollen-producing rods). The pollen-producing sterile (male) flower gets only three-eighths of an inch long with sixteen long stamens.

The prime season for foraging for American persimmons is November, but in some places they begin to ripen as early as late September. Some trees hold onto their fruit into late December or even January until they are finally dropped by storm winds. The good news for foragers is that persimmons have no poisonous look-alikes.

Blackberry Flower, side view

Ripe persimmons are most easily gathered on the ground because most grow high on the tree. Be quick about your foraging—the sweet ripe fruit tempts all the denizens of the forest.

USING PERSIMMONS

Unless you want your mouth to turn awry with much torment, you must wait until the fruit is completely ripe, custard-soft and almost rotten-looking before eating it. Bite into an unripe persimmon and you'll feel like your mouth is full of talcum powder, which only eating a completely ripe persimmon will cure.

The idea that persimmons must be subjected to a frost (called "bletting") to ripen them isn't true, although freezing or drying fruit that's not completely ripe improves its quality.

Fruit can hang on a persimmon tree for more than a month before all of it drops. This extended harvest season and the ripe fruit's extreme softness spells death for persimmon as a commercial product.

Because ripe persimmons are soft, place them in shallow plastic containers as you collect them, so the skin won't break and engulf dead leaves and twigs with the pulp. Place unripe persimmons in different containers from completely ripe ones, to let them ripen.

Wash ripe and unripe fruit in batches by placing them in a colander set inside a bowl that's shorter than the colander, and run tepid water through the colander. Because the colander is taller than the bowl, the fruit won't overflow, but any debris will flow through the holes and over the edge of the bowl. Spread the washed fruit on a tray and remove the remaining trash. Use or freeze the ripe fruit within a few days.

Keep the unripe fruit refrigerated in a shallow covered container along with unwaxed apples or crabapples, which emit ethylene gas and hasten ripening. Check daily, and use or freeze any ripened fruit.

You can eat fully ripe persimmons raw. The sourness of a few drops of lemon or lime juice provides a perfect foil for the fruit's sweetness, and any sweet herb or spice—such as cinnamon, ginger, mint, nutmeg, sassafras, allspice, or cloves—will compliment the fruit's flavor.

To make persimmon pulp, simmer the persimmons five to ten minutes in a heavy covered saucepan over low heat, stirring often, with enough apple juice or other fruit juice to prevent burning or splattering. Cool the mixture, then pass it through a food mill using the coarsest strainer to remove the large seeds. Or just pick out the seeds with your fingers. Expect to get one part pulp from two parts whole persimmon fruit.

You can use the pulp in almost any dessert recipe imaginable. You can even make persimmon leather with a food dehydrator. To make a delicious herb tea rich in vitamin C, steep one-quarter cup fresh persimmon leaves (or 4 teaspoons dried leaves) for twenty minutes, covered, in a cup of water just off the boil. Strain out the leaves and enjoy the tea.

Keep your eyes open for this underappreciated native treasure anytime you're out and about in your local woodlands and parks. Discover when the ripe fruit begins to drop and avoid the lackluster Asian ones, and you'll he able to delight in a timeless, sublime treat every year.

CAUTION: Eating wild-growing plants can be dangerous. Have them carefully identified by an expert and thoroughly wash them to remove bacteria.

Naturalist-author "Wildman" Steve Brill has been leading foraging tours in parks throughout the greater New York area since 1982. His Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not-So-Wild) Places (William Morrow Publishers, 1994) is considered a classic on the subject.