Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Persimmon - "Fruit of the Gods"

American Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) the "Fruit of the Gods"

     Few trees have as much lore and ethnobotany surrounding them as the American Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana). Though best known for its delicious edible qualities (but only when completely ripe), it has so many other traits. It is however hard to get past the wonderful taste of the fruits of this Genus of small trees. Its scientific Genus name Diospyros translates to "Fruit of the Gods" and many would say that is indeed a fitting name. The Algonquian name for them was something akin to "putchamin" which led to the name we have for it now. 
     Even when not full of fruit (and since this tree is dioecious, only female trees produce flowers resulting in fruit), the flat, corky rectangular bark is often enough to identify American Persimmon. It is a member of the Ebony family, with very dense, strong, and almost black heartwood. The wood has been used for spindles and to make golf clubs, but it doesn't grow large enough for any real lumber uses. 

Rectangular bark typical of persimmon



Urn shaped flowers

     The leaves are simple, nondescript, and the flowers, though fragrant, are not often noticed. It seems as though the only time people notice these small trees (growing less that 70' in most cases) is when they are loaded down with fruits.

A ripe 'Simmon ready for eating

     Although many would say it is deservedly called the "fruit of the gods" when ripe, few things compare to biting into a green persimmon. They are astringent and tart to the extreme! They so completely dry out your mouth, that it is quite a memorable experience for all the wrong reasons (and a favorite prank to play on people who are uninitiated and then tricked into biting into an unripe fruit). Captain John Smith, while near Jamestown, Virginia in the early 1600's, wrote: "If it be not ripe, it will draw a man's mouth awrie with much torment." The puckered mouth is said to last up to a full day (or at least it seems that way for those of us who have tried to eat one). So astringent is the green fruit that Francis Peyre Porcher in his Civil War treatise that is often referred to as the "Confederate Ethnobotany" says that it is better than oak for tanning (and does contain tannins). 

Sweet, colorful pulp and seeds of a ripe persimmon.

     A fully ripe persimmon is something else altogether though, considered delicious by most.  Some compare the flavor to that of dates. Although many believe that 'simmons are not edible until they have been hit by hard frosts, this is simply not true. While the cold does reduce some of the tannins and makes the fruit slightly sweeter, if the persimmon falls off the tree with only a slight pull or by shaking the tree, they should be good to eat. Ripe ones should be slightly squishy and have lost most of their green coloration as well. A stem attached to the fruit is a good clue that it fell off before being completely ripe as well.
     The fruits are full of vitamin C, can be eaten raw, used to make puddings, breads and cakes, or made into alcoholic drinks. In fact, Porcher, in his aforementioned Confederate Civil War manual, lists not one, but three different recipes for using persimmon to make beer. He also mentions that they can make a "particularly fine brandy."
          Porcher also notes that various parts of persimmon can be used to treat fevers, diarrhea, dysentery, and sore throats. Other sources report Confederate soldiers using the roasted seeds as a coffee substitute and the seeds for buttons. The lack of supplies due to Union blockades led to many sought after substitutes for goods no longer available in the South, and persimmons answered the call for many. Similarly, various tribes used persimmon not only for food but for other purposes as well. The Cherokee for example used it to treat diarrhea, sore throats, heart burn, and even hemorrhoids. The Rappahannocks made a strong spirit similar to beer out of it as well. Oil from the seeds is said to taste similar to peanuts.
     One of the most unusual uses for persimmons though deals with folklore claiming that one can predict how harsh the winter will be by cutting a seed in half. Legend says that if you look at the split seed, you should see one of three objects. If you see a spoon, then you will be shoveling lots of snow. If you see a knife, then it will be icy cold and the wind will cut like a knife. Finally, if you see what looks like a fork, then the winter will be mild and there will plenty to eat. 
     I must admit, the seeds are not easy to slice and the insides not that easy to interpret. Having said that, below are some I cut yesterday and which I think resemble an equal number of knives and spoons. Supposedly a bitterly cold winter with lots of snow... Let's see if that prognostication has any merit this winter.

The Persimmon Prediction for 2016-2017 in Arlington: an equal number of knives and spoons (open to interpretation). 

     Animals of course also make use of persimmon trees. Forty-six different species of caterpillars have been documented feeding on them. The fruits are consumed by numerous animals, though seem to be a favorite of raccoons, possums and foxes in particular. In fact, their scat often have persimmon seeds in them this time of year and they are likely the main dispersers of these trees. They're sometimes even called "possum trees."
     I thoroughly love to eat persimmons. They can hang on the trees for most of the winter. Though they may be shriveled, they still are quite tasty and a nice surprise on what might be an otherwise dreary day, assuming the cold has preserved them.

7 comments:

  1. It definitely looks like a spoon to me :( Very enlightening article, thankfully I've never tasted an unripened persimmon. It's great on toast!

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  2. Looks like a spoon AND knife to me.

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  3. I'm thinking "spoon" too -- it'll be interesting to revisit this article in the spring!

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  4. Fascinating article; thank you for the great information - and here's hoping that somehow the image is that of a fork sideways :-)

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  5. I read this back in October and thoroughly enjoyed it. After walking to my office today and the skin on my face nearly freezing, I'm going to concur with the knife assessment. Great read--thanks for the information!

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  6. The foxes at the farm leave me so many persimmon seeds in their scat. I will see if they germinate especially well from this natural pretreatment.

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  7. Thanks for this detailed article. I collected persimmons with a friend in Tennessee this past summer, and she made delicious persimmon butter for our pancakes.

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