How to harvest and prepare another bountiful "free for the eating" crop: Persimmons.
From mid-September, through Christmas and into the new
year, tons and tons of a particularly delicate and
delicious wild fruit go to waste—as far as humans are
concerned—over a tremendous area of rural America.
From the fence rows of Appalachia to the Ozarks, all
through the southern Gulf states and even into the milder,
fruit-growing regions of Michigan and the Great Lakes
country the woods and roadsides, abandoned fields and
eroded wastelands now covered with second-growth brush are
dotted and lined with . . . wild persimmons in full fruit.
When are Persimmons Ripe?
A persimmon tree burdened with ripe fruit is really
something to see! Every branch and twig and stem may be
crowded with the luscious golden globes of goodness. Not a
yellow-gold, but more of a flushed apricot with pinkish
It's strange that most of this bounty is never harvested
because everyone likes juicy, aromatic, dead-ripe
persimmons cooled by morning dew and bursting with sweet
flavor. And why shouldn't a persimmon be good? The pulp
contains as much as 34 percent fruit sugar, making it
perhaps the sweetest of all nature's gifts.
It is this very sweetness, however, that limits the use of
the fresh fruit because each luscious morsel is like a rich
bonbon and only two or three persimmons are enough to cloy
There's another reason so few persimmons are gathered: The
fruit is edible—and only edible—when
it's reached a stage of full ripeness so fragile that it
almost melts in the hand and a fall from the tree to hard
ground can make it splatter. Really ripe persimmons are
about as delicate and difficult to handle as a soap bubble.
If you cheat and pick one even a little bit firm and
unready, it'll be as bitter as gall and cause your lips to
pucker into a twenty-four hour kiss.
What to do? What to do?
Most of us are content to eat one or two ripe persimmons
during a fall walk through the woods and let the birds and
beasts harvest the rest. And they do harvest! Everything
that creeps, crawls, walks or flies loves ripe persimmons
and will gorge on them at the slightest opportunity.
Persimmons mature at just the right time for wild creatures
that are storing body fat against the cold and famine of
winter. Racoons, `possums, squirrels, deer, rabbits,
groundhogs, chipmunks, mice and shrews all share the feast.
Robins, mockingbirds, thrushes, crows and other birds peck
the golden fruit before it falls to the ground. Flies and
gnats swarm around crushed persimmons while lizards and
strange creepy-crawlies from under leaves and fallen logs
rush to join the banquet.
There is no particular reason for haste however, because
wild persimmons do not ripen all at one time like other
Some country folks insist that it takes a sharp frost to
make persimmons soft and edible, but the experienced
woodsman knows this is nonsense. The persimmon is ripe and
edible when it is soft as a baby's cheek, and this can be
as early as mid-September with temperatures still in the
80's or as late as February after nights have dropped below
There is wide variation in the trees of a given area and
even in persimmons from the same tree. Some will soften and
fall early while others remain hard, astringent and clamped
on their limbs until dry as prunes or dates. Indeed,
certain varieties of persimmon are referred to by natives
as "date-Plums", although they are neither.
How to Preserve Persimmons
Ripe wild persimmons, because of their delicacy, can never
be widely available in fruit markets
and—therefore—are rarely utilized by modern
homemakers. The fruit was an important food source for the
Indians, however, and a dessert for pioneers who learned
the art of preservation from red neighbors. The secret is
in drying the pulp: The same method used by our forefathers
to preserve apples, peaches, pears and many kinds of
berries and grapes in the days before pressure cookers and
canning supplies were available.
Persimmons have to be gathered daily or every other day
during the ripening period. Only those that fall on a
grassy turf or soft growth of weeds or leaves will be
undamaged and bruised or torn fruit is quickly destroyed by
insects, animals, fermentation or souring.
If enough hands are available, many persimmons can be
gathered undamaged by holding a sheet under a tree while
the tree is gently shaken. Each persimmon has to be
individually inspected, however, to make sure it is at the
soft-ripe stage of perfection. Just one astringent fruit in
a half bushel can spoil an entire batch of pulp.
The average ripe persimmon is round and about an inch and a
half in diameter. Each contains from two to six large seeds
surrounded by juicy, sweet pulp and separating seeds from
pulp presents a problem worthy of the talents of Eli
Whitney. The ordinary colander or food mill doesn't work
well for this since the seeds are large, hard, slippery and
extremely difficult to remove. We've never been able to
learn how the Indians or our grandparents did the job and,
perhaps, they were content to simply mash the whole fruit
and dry everything together. This seems impractical,
though, because of the large percentage of seeds to pulp.
At any rate, a moment of happy inspiration solved this
annoying problem and now enables us to process and preserve
our family supply of persimmons without too much effort.
Among our kitchen utensils, we found a small two-handed
press known as a "potato ricer". It's inexpensive and
available from any hardware store. The soft, ripe
persimmons are simply dropped into the press, squeezed and
the sweet orange-colored pulp scraped from the sides and
transferred to a container. Waste seeds and skins are then
removed in readiness for the next batch. By this means, a
peck of persimmons can be processed in about an hour and
will produce approximately two quarts of pulp.
Looking at this fragrant orange pulp, the innocent
homemaker will immediately think: "Oh, I can just add sugar
and a little lemon and cook up a batch of delicious jam for
Alas, it cannot be. Even the gentlest cooking of persimmon
pulp seems to bring back the astringency and makes it
The pulp can be frozen and stored in deep-freeze or
refrigerator compartments. It may darken when thawed but
there is little loss of the delicate flavor. Freezing and
freezer equipment are not always available to the flower
children and others interested in the simple life and a
return to nature. For them, drying offers the easiest
The Indian method was to spread a quarter-inch of pulp on a
peeled log and let it remain until sun and air-dried to the
consistency of tough leather. Of course, the pulp had to be
protected from rain and roving animals during the ten days
or longer it took to cure.
Once dried, the pulp was called "persimmon leather" and
could be kept almost indefinitely if protected from
dampness and mold. This was usually accomplished by
hanging the slabs by thongs from tipi poles or the kitchen
rafters of a settler's log cabin. Smoke from cooking and
heating fires helped to preserve the dried fruit and keep
We find that a cookie sheet is more practical than a peeled
log and dehydration can be speeded by using an oven's low
When desired, the persimmon leather can be cut into small
pieces and eaten like candy. It is much relished by small
children this way. Or, the dried pulp can be mixed like
raisins with cornmeal and other cereals to make Indian
puddings, various cakes and biscuits.
Maybe times haven't changed so much after all. Today, just
as in grandfather's time, there is an ample supply of
delicious fruit ready to preserve for the winter's stores
at no cost other than your own pleasant labors.