The American Persimmon

The American Persimmon

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by Mark Hall   On a quiet Saturday morning, I roll out of bed and meander downstairs to start my coffee. I gaze through the kitchen window upon the side yard, still blanketed with the first snow of winter. With my eyes, I follow multiple sets of whitetail deer tracks that crisscross the white landscape. All of them cluster together at the foot of one of our trees, where the deer have been feeding on its sweet yellow-orange fruit.  

This veritable deer magnet is an American persimmon tree (Diospyros virginiana). Also known as the common persimmon, this tree is not to be confused with the smaller Asian variety (Diospyros kaki). In fact, at a height of 30 to 80 feet, the American stands several times taller than its counterpart.   

On the other hand, its fruit is barely larger than an olive — tiny in comparison to the racquetball-sized yield of the Asian persimmon. However, what the American lacks in size, it makes up for in flavor. This sentiment was not lost on its early discoverers, nor the botanist who named it. Diospyros roughly translates from Latin as “fruit of the gods.”  

Centuries ago, persimmon fruit was a well-established food source for many Native American tribes. The pulp was blended with cornmeal and ground acorns to make thick soups and breads. It was also cooked into a sweet pudding and was even consumed raw.  

Several parts of the tree itself were commonly used in the making of beverages. Its leaves were utilized in the making of tea, and coffee was brewed using roasted seeds. The Rappahannock tribe mixed its fruits with hot water to make beer. The seeds can also be turned into something like peanut oil.  

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The Algonquins produced putchamin, or artificially dried fruit, to minimize the strong, bitter flavor of the unripe persimmon. When ripe, however, the fruit has a wonderful, sweet taste. This extreme difference in taste was described in the strongest terms by John Smith, one of the first settlers of the Jamestown colony. In the year 1609, he wrote, “The fruit is like a medlar; it is first green then yellow, and red when ripe; if not ripe, it will drive a man’s mouth awrie [sic] with much torment; but when it is ripe, it is as delicious as an apricock [sic].”   

Many Native American tribes also recognized the health benefits provided by the American persimmon tree. Its unique blocky bark and its syrup were used as medicine for conditions of the mouth, throat, and bowel, as well as an effective treatment for indigestion. In addition, the bark was chewed to relieve heartburn.  

The tree is a hardwood that is heavy and fine-grained. It resists wear and is excellent for use in turning. Strong and elastic, persimmon wood was once used in the manufacture of golf club heads before the introduction of metals into the game. In fact, of the many woods used throughout much of the history of the sport, persimmon was widely preferred. The wood can also be found in pool cues, veneers, flooring, and textile shuttles that carry threads through a loom.  

Optimal conditions for growth of American persimmons include a moist, loamy soil that drains well and receives plenty of sunshine. However, they can also grow in sandy soils, muddy lowlands, and shale. Persimmon trees are dioecious, meaning that for fruit production, the female tree needs the presence of a male tree somewhere nearby. Bees bring pollen from the male flower clusters to the larger, solitary female flowers. Pollination can also be achieved by the wind.   

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There is also a means to produce persimmon fruit without the necessity of a second tree. An American persimmon can become “self-fruiting,” having both male and female flowers, by grafting a branch from the male tree onto the female. This practice can be quite beneficial, for if it is grafted onto a mature tree, the seedling can flower and fruit much sooner. Also, there is more uniformity in its fruits, flowers, and growth habits.  

If you decide to eat one of the fruits, first, be sure that they are soft and that they are orange-red in color. Then, turn it upside down, bite into it, and suck out the soft, sweet pulp. If you happen to pluck them before they are ripe, leave them at room temperature for a few days. For quicker results, put them in a closed paper bag with an apple. The raw persimmon fruit will soon ripen with the release of ethylene gas from the apple.  

If you are in the market for a hardy, decorative, fruit-bearing tree with multiple uses and a rich history, you’ll want to consider the persimmon. If so, and you live in the central or eastern part of the country, you’re in luck. Persimmon trees can be found all the way from the east coast to Texas and from the gulf coast to the Great Lakes.  

Persimmons are food not only for deer, but for many kinds of wildlife, including raccoons, opossums, rodents, and a great number of birds. So, the next time you go for a walk in the snow, consider following some wild animal tracks. Like the prints in our yard, they just might lead you to an American persimmon tree.  

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Resources  

MARK M. HALL lives with his wife, their three daughters, and numerous pets on a four-acre slice of paradise in rural Ohio. Mark is a veteran small-scale chicken farmer and an avid observer of nature. As a freelance writer, he endeavors to share his life experiences in a manner that is both informative and entertaining. 

Originally published in the September/October 2022 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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