Persimmons: “Food of the Gods”
Master Gardener Scoop ~ October 25, 2017
By Linda Summers,
My husband and I have a small grove of persimmon trees in our front yard. The fruit is beginning to ripen now and our dog loves to meander around the trees, looking for fallen fruit.
The American Persimmon, or Diospyros virginiana, can be found in its native habitat–along the east coast of the United States from Connecticut to Florida and west to Kansas and Texas. It is the most northern member of the ebony family. The name Diospryros comes from two Greek words–Dios, which refers to the god Zeus, and puros, for wheat. Hence, the loose translation meaning “wheat of Zeus” or “food of the gods.”
The persimmon tree is a medium height tree, growing up to 50 feet tall with a diameter up to a foot. There are places in the United States, however, where favorable conditions have produced persimmon trees with twice the height and diameter. Although the trees prefer moist, well-drained, sandy soils, they also seem to do well in dry soils with low fertility. They can be found along the roadsides, in fence rows and in pastures.
The leaves of the persimmon are alternate, simple, elliptic to oval in shape and pointed at the tip. They may grow up to 5″ in length and they are dark green, smooth and glossy on the upper side and slightly paler and smooth underneath. In the fall, the leaves on persimmons turn yellow and tend to fall early exposing the fruit. The trees are dioecious, meaning “two houses”, male trees and female trees. Only the female trees bear fruit, which has been pollinated by a male tree.
The fruit is an edible berry, 3/4″ to 1 1/2″ across, that turns a yellow-orange or orange-red in the fall. When ripe, the fruit appears somewhat soft and squishy and it should pull off easily from the four woody bracts that attach the fruit to the stem. Anyone who knows about persimmons will tell you that an unripe persimmon is something you never forget. Firm, unripe persimmons are bitter and astringent, due to the tannins in the fruit, and they will make you pucker up!
Because the fruits are quite palatable, they provide a valuable food source for many wildlife, including birds, rodents, raccoons, opossums, skunks, coyotes, foxes, turkeys and white-tailed deer. However, the fruits are also suitable for human consumption, high in potassium and wonderful eaten raw. The fruit can also be used in many recipes including persimmon ice cream or persimmon pudding.
Other than by its fruit, the persimmon tree is easily identified by its bark. The bark of a mature tree is dark brown or gray to black and divided into small, squarish blocks that resemble an uneven mosaic. The wood of a persimmon is heavy, hard, strong and close-grained. It is used for golf club heads, billiard cues, flooring and veneers, and shuttle blocks or bobbins for weaving cloth.
According to folklore, the seeds of the persimmon have long been known as a precursor of the severity of the coming winter season. If you split the seed inside, you will see a “knife”, “fork” or “spoon” shape. The knife shape foretells a cold, icy winter where the cold wind will “cut through you like a knife.” The fork shape indicates a mild winter with a dry, fluffy snow. Because of the fork, some people think you will also eat hardy due to the mild winter. The spoon shape resembles a shovel, meaning that we’ll be digging out from under a lot of heavy, wet snow. Cut at least 10 persimmon seeds and see what shape you get. We got mostly spoon shapes, with a few fork shapes as well. In a few months, you will see how accurate you are and in the meantime, enjoy those persimmons!
For more information, please contact your local Master Gardener or call or visit your local University of Illinois Extension Office. Another great source of gardening information is the Extension website at web.extension.illinois.edu.