I don’t have a long tradition with persimmons and my first introduction to the native fruit, Diosyprus virginiana, was in its un-ripened phase. I was a college student and while walking with a friend to class one day I saw these round orange fruit-like things on the ground. My friend said they were persimmons and I asked her what they tasted like. She suggested that we pick some and eat them on our way to class. We were waiting for our Italian class to begin when we popped these fruits into our mouths. First it was mush, then there was all of those seeds. Then I thought I had just taken a tablespoon of alum powder—I thought she was trying to poison me. Try speaking Italian with your mouth all puckered up!
It was years later, after marriage and domestication when I found out how delicious the native persimmon is after the frost. I do not know why I was never introduced to this delicious fruit in my youth, but I have brought it to our family’s Thanksgiving table ever since.
The native persimmon, Diosyprus virginiana grows in 31 states. I thought it was only native to southern Indiana but the species distribution maps indicates some counties in the extreme northeast of the state. Native persimmon trees are not fussy about soil, but a sandy clay soil in bottom lands is the most likely site. It can be seen as a first generation of woody species cropping up in old pasture lands. Deer are highly attracted to the leaf, buds and fruits as are many types of birds, fox, coyote, raccoon and opossum. If you have room for this sturdy forty-foot tree, by all means introduce it, at least on the wooded edge of your land, for wildlife as well as for dessert!
Diosyprus is part of the Ebenaceae family of woody plants and it is sometimes called the ebony tree, as the wood is dense and is used for handles on mallets, files and other woodworking tools. It is even used for golf clubs and pool cues.
The Algonquin peoples coined the name persimmon and many Native Americans used the persimmon seeds in breads. I for one have never tasted the seeds. During the second Roanoke expedition (1585), the scientist Thomas Hariot described the fruit “as red as cherries and very sweet.” Hariot was smart enough to eat them ripened, whereas Captain John Smith of the Jamestown colony (1607) wrote, “if it is not ripe it will drive a man’s mouth awrie with torment.” I’ll say.
Our native persimmon never caught on as a commercial success as the Asian varieties, but was enjoyed by the few people who were willing to sieve the pulp from the seeds. Those who harvest the native persimmons will know that each small fruit contains anywhere from one to an average of five seeds. One rather large fruit I squished one day had seven seeds, and it takes a good number of fruits to add up to two cups of delicious sweet pulp.
The Asian persimmon, Diospyrus kaki arrived on North American soils from Japan via Commodore Perry in 1856. Fruit production in California began in the 1870s. Grafted trees and seeds of other varieties continued to filter into the United States by both government agents and private plant exporters well into the 20th century. Diosyprus kaki stock is usually grafted to the native Diosyprus virginiana making the grafted stock winter hardy to about 10 degrees and truthfully, not really successful in Indiana unless extremely protected. The un-grafted Asian varieties are usually winter hardy to only 20-25 degrees where as our native persimmon is hardy to -25 degrees. I know of gardeners who have grown the Asian varieties in southern Indiana, but the long term life of the tree is iffy in brutal cold. The commercially grown larger Asian varieties are showing up in the groceries now.
Although it is commonly thought that the fruits require frost to reduce the tannins, thus making the fruit edible, it is rather like any other fruit, differing varieties have their season for ripeness and may not ripen until so late in the season that frost happens. Ripening times will vary even amongst the native species.
If gardeners are interested in growing hardy persimmons, two trees will be required. It is best to purchase nursery stock to ensure you have both sexes. In selecting hardy varieties for Indiana, there’s D. “Early Golden” which ripens in mid-September and is very productive. D. “John Rick” and D. “Killen” ripen in early October. I think the best of the latest varieties is D. “Miller” which has large fruit, firm texture and is a good producer, mid to late October. Certainly there are native trees in our neighborhood that still have fruits tenaciously hanging on to the branches and ripe for the picking. (I checked.)
Anita Bracalente is a garden designer, writer and lecturer with Jackson & Fourth Garden Design. She can be reached at 812.332.6042.