I didn’t grow up eating persimmons. Somehow they made it into my vocabulary but never my diet. My British wife Emma wasn’t familiar with them at all until they suddenly appeared in a textbook when we were teaching in Korea. I think we tried them that year, bought at little corner grocery store not far from the school, and I don’t remember either of us being particularly impressed. The fact is, eaten at the wrong time, persimmons are more memorable for their astringent kickback than tastiness.
In our first impression, or lack thereof, we were mistaken.
Since moving to North Carolina, where we forage extensively, we have gone crazy for persimmons. They grow wild here, and we have several trees that we visit when autumn starts to get in full swing. The fruits on these trees are not the large, tomato-like specimens we encountered in Korea (Asian persimmon: Diospyros kaki); rather, they are perhaps the size of a golf ball, if not slightly smaller (American persimmon: Diospyros virginiana). And, what we’ve learned is that they aren’t ready to eat until they seem like they are too far gone to eat.
They’ve got to be smushy, and once they are, it’s something akin to eating a date, a flavour reminiscent of caramel pudding with notes of cinnamon. Walks in the fall commonly turn into sessions of gorging beneath the tree.
Turns out, persimmons can also be very useful—multi-functional—within a permaculture plot.
Humans aren’t the only species who enjoy persimmons. They were commonly propagated in pastures for livestock feed. When the fruits are ripe and ready to eat, they tend to fall off the tree and create a buffet on the ground below. Because they are late fruiters, starting in the fall and producing deep into the winter, they are a great source of calories for livestock when times are leaner. Horses are known to over-indulge on them if not regulated.
Unsurprisingly, if the livestock enjoy eating persimmons, wildlife are also fans. Deer absolutely love them (then again, what don’t deer like), as do squirrels, raccoons, foxes and other woodland creatures. For those into wildlife observation, this is a great tree to plant yourself near or point a wildlife camera at. There will surely be activity around it. “Possumwood” is a persimmon nickname because opossums so love the fruits.
Persimmon trees are part of the ebony family and are sometimes referred to as “white ebony”. They have tight, straight grains and are very hard and strong. That said, they have a lot of sapwood and are prone to splitting and causing other problems when being dried. Due to their sturdiness, however, persimmon wood was commonly used for golf club heads before metal replaced it, and it’s currently used for things like wedding bands, looms, and shoes. In its own way, it’s valuable timber.
Of particular interest to us, persimmon is great firewood. It burns hot, comparing favourably to hickory and locust. It also has a nice aroma, doesn’t send out a lot of sparks, and puts up only a little smoke. Persimmons are easy to propagate from seed. However, the resulting trees are 50/50 male and female (dioecious is the $100K word). So this would be a good fate for male trees after the roughly seven years of growth it takes to determine the gender. They can also be coppiced, so that could mean sustainable fuelwood production.
Late Season Harvest
Persimmons, even for those of us who haven’t grown up eating them, are recognised as food, but one of the great things about persimmons as a food crop is that they aren’t harvested until late autumn and winter. That’s advantageous because, when the pickings are at their least, a delicious and calorie-rich fresh fruit is coming off the tree. In fact, folk knowledge suggests they aren’t really ready to eat until after having gotten a good frost. Late-fruiting persimmons are known to still hold front into January.
Persimmons Medicinal Uses
Native Americans of several different tribes used persimmon trees medicinally. Boiled roots were treatment for bowel issues. Bark infusions were used for thrush. The Cherokee, from North Carolina, where we currently live, also utilised it for curing sore throats, heartburn, liver problems, toothaches, and venereal disease.
Persimmons are commonly used in alcoholic beverages as well. Native Americans made a beer-esque drink with it. The ripe fruit is extremely sweet and plays perfectly for fermenting a little home-brew. Persimmons are combined with a hops, cornmeal, or wheat to make the beer.
In Louisiana, where I’m from, chicory is commonly added to coffee to stretch out the grounds and provide a distinctive flavour. Apparently, persimmon seeds can be ground into black powder and used similarly. The leaves can be used to make healthful teas.
We are really excited to have a huge persimmon tree on the property we’ve recently purchased, and we plan to cultivate several more there. Here are a few more tips for finding and foraging American persimmons.
- Generally, the best way to harvest persimmons is to shake the branches of the tree. Fruits that are ready to be eaten will fall off. Unfortunately, they are often so ripe that they squish from the impact. Persimmons can be eaten raw, are traditionally used in a pudding, and make great fruit leather.
- While it’s best not to pick persimmons too early, they can be ripened off the tree. The off-gas—ethylene—that bananas release will help to make this happen, so some foragers will put their unripe fruits in a paper bag with a banana. Again, the fruit has to be completely ripe to get rid of the intense astringency.
- American persimmons have a relatively small natural range (and they aren’t often cultivated in nurseries). They grow from southern Connecticut down the entire east coast of the USA and west to just over the Texas border. Also native to Utah and California, they grow in USDA Zones 6-10.
- Asian persimmon trees, in addition to producing larger fruits, are easy to find and commonly used in landscaping as ornamental trees. Unlike American persimmons, Asian persimmons are grown commercially for crop. There are lots of varieties to choose from.