Our native persimmon tree's luscious fruits are ready to harvest in late fall and early winter, long after most other fruit crops are done. Wild persimmons (Diospyros virginiana) are smaller than their commercially grown cousins, but just as delicious.
American persimmon trees can grow as tall as 35 to 60 feet tall. The branches of mature trees tend to droop a bit. One of the most distinctive characteristics of older persimmon trees is their craggy, grey-black bark, which is sometimes described as reptilian. Its chunky pattern does look a bit like crocodile skin.
The 4- to 8-inch long leaves grow in an alternate arrangement, are roughly teardrop shaped. They are twice as long as wide with smooth edges. The leaves are glossy on their upper surfaces and turn a bright crimson or yellow in the fall.
There are male and female persimmon trees, and only the females bear fruit. The fruit looks like a small, bright orange plum between 3/4 to 2 inches in diameter. There are prominent leafy bracts attached to the stem end of the fruit.
American persimmon grows in full or partial sun and often prefers sandy, relatively infertile soils. It is hardy to gardening zone 4.
The fruit ripens in mid to late fall. Most of the fruit falls to the ground, but there are usually a few persimmons clinging to the trees' branches well into winter.
Harvest the fruit when it is soft, starting to wrinkle, and either has already fallen from the tree or detaches easily from the branches. The leafy bracts of perfectly ripe persimmons will twist off easily. Persimmons that fell to the ground still attached to twigs are probably unripe.
Unripe persimmons are so astringent that your whole face will pucker up if you bite into one! The ripe fruit, on the other hand, is exquisitely sweet. Fortunately, persimmons will continue to ripen off the tree so long as they are orange, not green, when you collect them. If you come home with fruits that aren't yet fully ripe, just put them in cloth or paper bags and let them sit at room temperature for a few days. Adding an apple or banana to the bags will speed up the ripening because of the natural ethylene gas those other fruits will exude.
Ripe persimmons are delicious raw – just spit out the seeds. Some people peel them first but I usually eat the peel along with the pulp. You can use the pulp (without the peels or seeds) to make superb jams, ice cream, custard and other desserts, as well as an interesting wine. Frozen persimmon pulp works just as well as fresh for any of these preparations.
Leda Meredith is the author of Northeast Foraging: 120 Wild and Flavorful Edibles from Beach Plums to Wineberries. You can watch her foraging and food preservation videos, and follow her food adventures at Leda's Urban Homestead.Her latest book is Preserving Everything: Can, Culture, Pickle, Freeze, Ferment, Dehydrate, Salt, Smoke...and More.
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