Persimmons Are an Easy and Tasty Fruit

| 9/11/2013 11:36:00 AM

Tags: persimmons, uncommon fruit, Lee Reich, New York,

persimmons on treeIt’s raining persimmons (Diospyros virginiana) here and I know the trees are mocking me. I put so much effort into my apple trees, with careful pruning and repeated spraying of various organic concoctions, and what do those trees offer in return. Little. Sometimes nothing. This is admittedly a bad site for growing apples in terms of late frosts, damp air, and proximity to woods that harbor apple pests.

The persimmons, though, I do practically nothing for them. Yet the fruit comes raining down, more than we can eat.

Still, to quote W. F. Fletcher, writing in a USDA Farmers’ Bulletin back in 1915, “The [American] persimmon tree has received more criticism, both adverse and favorable, than almost any known species.” If your mouth has ever been puckered by an unripe American persimmon, you know much of the reason for this adverse criticism. The bad press goes back as far as the early part of the 17th century, when Captain John Smith, of Jamestown fame, wrote: “If [a persimmon] is not ripe it will draw a man’s mouth awrie with much torment.” In modern parlance, I liken eating an unripe persimmon to having the business end of a vacuum cleaner in your mouth - and the sensation lingers even after you spit out the fruit.

Ah, but eating a thoroughly ripened persimmon is as pleasurable a gustatory experience as eating an unripe one is horrible. Captain Smith went on to say of the persimmon that “when it is ripe, it is as delicious as an apricot.” In contrast to the larger, firmer Oriental persimmon found in food markets, fruit of the American persimmon has the look and size of a cherry tomato, with a similar range of color, from yellow to orange to deep red. When ready to eat, an American persimmon is very soft, too soft for a market fruit, but fine for backyards, where fruits need travel no further than arm’s length. At that point, the flesh has a richness and texture something like a  dried apricot that has been soaked in water, then dipped in honey and given a dash of spice.

Differences between the American and Oriental persimmon (D. kaki) go beyond the fruit. Cold tolerance for example. Oriental persimmons cannot tolerate winter temperatures much below zero degrees Fahrenheit (Zone 7), yet American persimmons, native from Connecticut down to Florida and west to Kansas, bear fruit even after winters when the mercury plummets below minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit (Zone 4).

Compared with the Oriental persimmon, improved by centuries of breeding and selection, the American persimmon is a pomological upstart. There are a couple of dozen named varieties of American persimmon, with the first one, Early Golden, discovered in 1880 on a farm in Alton, Illinois. Early Golden, early-ripening, flavorful, and small seeded, began a lineage of high-quality varieties that includes Garretson, Killen, and John Rick. Other varieties, many unrelated to Early Golden, were also selected and named by the early part of this century. That U. S. Department of Agriculture bulletin of 1915 listed 12 varieties besides Early Golden.

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