By Elaine Mills, Certified Master Gardener
Photos by Elaine Mills and Bob Kline
A medium-sized tree along the fenceline bordering the herb beds at the Glencarlyn Library Garden may not catch attention much of the year. In November, though, its bright orange fruits suspended from bare branches easily draw the eyes of visitors.
This tree is Diospyros virginiana, the common or American persimmon, a plant native to the eastern and midwestern United States. It began growing as a seedling about seven years ago when its parent plant died and has quickly grown to a height of 25 feet. It is already showing the distinctive thick, dark gray bark that is deeply divided into rectangular blocks. The wood of this ebony family member is extremely hard and can be used to make billiard cues and golf club heads. The glossy green foliage serves as a food source for the caterpillar of the luna moth.
Most persimmon trees are dioecious, bearing only flowers of one sex, but our tree apparently has perfect flowers with both male and female reproductive parts, allowing it to develop fertilized seeds and bear fruit. The fragrant flowers are a creamy greenish-yellow and appear in late spring largely hidden by foliage. They can be pollinated by the wind or long-tongued bees.
Persimmon fruit is edible and measures 1 to 2 inches in diameter, about the size of a plum. It is quite astringent when green due to a high tannin content. The fruit ripens slowly from August to November, even after leaf drop, and becomes sweet after turning a deep orange and becoming soft. There is a misconception that the fruit requires freezing temperatures to lose its astringency. If a hard frost is predicted, immature fruit should be picked and allowed to ripen inside. Persimmons attract a variety of wildlife including birds such as catbirds, cedar waxwings, mockingbirds, and pileated woodpeckers, as well as opossums and raccoons. Historically, they were enjoyed by indigenous Algonquin people who gave the tree its common name.
Native persimmons have a very soft jelly-like texture, making them too fragile for shipping. Therefore, many people are more familiar with the larger, peach-sized fruit of the oriental species Diospyros kaki, which can be found in grocery stores in the fall. This species, among the oldest trees in cultivation in Asia, was introduced to California in the 19th century. Modern cultivars, such as ‘Fuyu’ do not contain tanins when firm and can be eaten at any stage of ripeness.
For those lucky enough to have a source of native persimmon fruit, here are a few tips and a recipe shared by Master Gardener Emeritus Alice Nicolson.
Native persimmon fruit should be cleaned and processed promptly to avoid fermentation. An easy way to process the fruit prior to cooking is to use a stainless steel cone strainer with a wooden pestle. This method allows the pulp to be pressed through, leaving the large seeds behind.
RUTH SMITH’S RECIPE FOR PERSIMMON PUDDING*
(adapted by Alice Nicolson)
- Process enough ripe persimmons to make 2 cups of pulp
- Add one heaping cup of sugar
- Combine 1 tsp baking soda and 1 ½ cups buttermilk, stirring until mixture stops foaming
- Then add liquid to persimmon mixture
- Stir in 3 beaten eggs and 1/3 cup evaporated milk or half-and-half
- Sift together and then add 1 ½ cups whole wheat flour, ½ tsp cinnamon, and 1/8 tsp salt to persimmon mixture, along with ¼ cup corn meal, if desired
- Add 1 tsp. vanilla
- Melt ½ or more stick of butter in 14”x10” pan and swirl to coat, then add remainder to batter
- Stir batter, then pour into baking dish, and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes
- Cool and cut into squares, serving with whipped cream, if desired
Growing Persimmons by Carl Cantaluppi and last updated by Sandy Ruble, NC Cooperative Extension
*Ruth Smith was a local herbalist and taught a course on “Useful and Edible Wild Plants” through the USDA Graduate School in the 1980s. She frequently brought this dessert to meetings of the Herb Society, and Master Gardener Emeritus Alice Nicolson obtained the recipe there from fellow Master Gardener Pat Miller.