| By Steven Foster
Fall colors are popping, and piles of pumpkins remind us that cold weather is soon upon us. I love the autumn colors for how they differentiate one tree from another. A few native trees show-off their fruits this time of year like orange-brown persimmons dangling like holiday ornaments. Persimmons are delicious if they are ripe, which begs the question, which came first, the season’s first frost or the first ripe persimmon? Conventional wisdom is that persimmons ripen once they are hit by a frost. This year, we have yet to have a frost, but I’ve been plucking ripe persimmons for two weeks. I enjoy their sweet flavor and mealy texture, projecting the seeds with a purse of the lips like one ejects watermelon seeds. Given the timing, I can only conclude that the first frost and the ripening of persimmons occur at about the same time each year no matter what the weather.
Experience teaches any wild food enthusiast that you bite into an unripe persimmon only once. The high astringency sucks every bit of moisture from one’s mouth! This year as I’ve tested persimmons for ripeness with a gentle squeeze to determine their softness, my curiosity leads me to inspect each persimmon. I notice s that those persimmons that are ripe show signs of interest by small creatures. Maybe it’s a small hole or the remnants of a web on the outside, or some other little evidence of a bug. My theory is that when a bug bites a persimmon, they inject or induce some enzymatic reaction that hastens the fruit’s ripening; a twist of coevolution.
As I ponder information that I’ve collected on persimmons, all roads lead back to the time of George Washington’s presidency. In 1792, a physician and chemist, James Woodhouse (1770-1809) completed his medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania, with publication of “An Inaugural Dissertation, on the Chemical and Medical Properties of the Persimmon Tree, and the Analysis of Astringent Vegetables.”
The persimmon tree, called piakimine, we learn from early explorers, were widely used as food and medicine by native groups, who made a paste of the ripe fruits, baked it into flat cakes about the thickness of the finger. Mixed with flour from other food sources, it made an excellent bread. Colonial physicians used the dried ripe fruit, the powder of the unripe fruit, the powdered inner bark or the bark of the root taken in wine for treatment of dysentery. Woodhouse records a treatment for hemorrhoids “as useful as any, in the cure of the disease.” It is a mixture of the juice of unripe persimmons with hog’s lard, “sugar of lead” [lead acetate which actually has a sweet taste] and opium.
The potential of the unripe juice of persimmons in tanning leathers excited Thomas Jefferson. Woodhouse suggested that three hundred persimmon trees, producing an average of four bushels of fruits could produce six pounds of gum resin per tree which would be far superior to oak bark for tanning. It would require less labor, less capital and be far cleaner [for the environment] than the standard tannery of the day which relied upon oak bark. For a time, North Carolina commercially cultivated persimmons. In the South, when forests were cleared, persimmon trees were preserved, which is perhaps why we have an abundance of persimmon trees around old Ozark farmsteads today.
Ripe fruits can be collected and squeezed through a strainer to remove the seeds and as much of the skin as possible, then put away in the freezer until needed. A wide variety of products can be made from the dried, frozen or fresh fruits. This is best reflected in the pages of Billy Joe Tatum’s Wild Foods Field Guide and Cookbook (Workman Press, 1976.) Billy Joe transformed wild edibles from the realm of survival foods to haute cuisine. In her popular book she includes recipes for Persimmon breads, cookies (with chocolate chips), Persimmon and corn meal muffins, custard, fruit cake, Indian-style pudding, jam, jelly, pie, pinwheels, sherbet and even Persimmon soufflé.
During Civil War years rebel soldiers used Persimmon seeds as a coffee substitute. In attempts to find substitute products unavailable because of Union blockades on southern ports, the southern fields and forests became creative sources of replacement commodities. Recipes were developed for Persimmon syrups, vinegar, coffee, and beer.
In D.J. Browne’s Sylva Americana (1832) the author relates:
“The fruit is sometimes pounded with bran, and formed into cakes which are dried in an oven, and kept to make beer, for which purpose they are dissolved in warm water with the addition of hops and leaven. It was long since found that brandy might be made from this fruit, by distilling the water, previously fermented, in which they have been bruised. This liquor is said to become good as it acquires age.”
Persimmon is a member of the Ebony Family (Ebenaceae). The genus Diospyros, the largest in the family, has 500 or more species widely distributed in Asia, Africa, the Mediterranean Region, South and North America. Though primarily a genus of tropical regions with just a few species enduring colder climates, the fossil remains of ancient Diospyros species are recorded from the Miocene deposits of Alaska and Greenland, and the Cretaceous formations of Nebraska.
Diospyros virginiana – Persimmon, Possumwood, Possum Apple, Date Plum, or Virginia Date Plum as it is variously known, is the species found in eastern North America. A second North American species Diospyros texana occurs in river valleys of southwestern Texas, extending into Mexico.
Diospyros kaki and D. lotus, two east Asian species, have been cultivated for centuries in China as a fruit crop. Many new cultivated sweet and seedless varieties have been developed over the years. The Asian fruit-producing species are sometimes grown in warmer regions of the U.S. as a minor cash crop. It is interesting to note that the temperate North American Diospyros virginiana is much more closely related to the East Asian D. lotus (occurring from the northwestern Himalayas through eastern China to Japan), than it is to South American relatives. The leaves of the two species are strikingly similar. Some botanists have asserted that unlabeled specimens of the two species could be laid side-by-side, and an expert would be hard-put to determine which was which.
The generic name Diospyros means “fruit of Zeus”, apparently referring to the life-giving properties of the fruits. The specific epithet “virginiana” obviously refers to the region from which it was first collected.
What will the future hold for Persimmons? The fruits have an endless possibility for variety and development of new products. A curious natural product scientist might follow the lead of studying the use of Persimmon seeds for kidney stones. Wood workers might find novel uses for the tough, tight-grained material. And maybe one or two of you will stop at a fruit-laden Persimmon tree on your way to the supermarket and collect a few pounds of a divine native fruit.