I was walking through the woods on Maryland’s Eastern Shore when I stepped on something squishy and slippery. The bottom of my shoe was covered in orange pulp and the ground was littered with what looked like tiny apricots. They were persimmons – native American Diospyros virginiana – now my favorite wild fruit.
The little wild persimmon – no more than 2 inches across – is one of the last fruits to ripen before winter sets in. Its cheerful orange color and sweet flesh are a welcome contrast to the heavier foods of winter.
Native Americans ate the wild fruits raw and also dried them for winter use. The name persimmon is a corruption of the Algonquin word for the fruit.
The settlers followed the Algonquin lead and persimmon pudding became a common early-American dessert. Persimmons also were used in breads, muffins and preserves, and persimmon beer remained popular in the South at least into the 20th century. A recipe in “Dishes and Beverages of the Old South” by Martha McCulloch Williams (1913) calls persimmon beer “the poor relation of champagne — with the advantage that nobody is ever the worse for drinking it.”
The importance of the native persimmon to earlier Americans is evident in a Civil War reminiscence recorded by the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writer’s Project, now housed in the U.S. Library of Congress.
In November 1864, Confederate Gen. John B. Hood led the Army of Tennessee out of Alabama toward Nashville. One of Hood’s men, Milton Cox, told his son, John, about the grueling march from Atlanta. His son told a WPA interviewer in Texas what his father told him:
“After the fall of Atlanta, we marched northward into Tennessee over frozen ground and how cold it was! Our shoes were worn out and our feet were torn and bleeding … the snow was on the ground and there was no food. Our rations were a few grains of parched corn. When we reached the vicinity of Nashville we were very hungry and we began to search for food. Over in a valley stood a tree which seemed to be loaded with fruit. It was a frost bitten persimmon tree, but as I look back over my whole life, never have I tasted any food which would compare with these persimmons.”
It is commonly thought that persimmons need a touch of frost to ripen. In truth, the fruit ripen with or without a frost and have a long growing season. Immature fruits often grow right next to ripe ones. And they need to be really ripe to eat. In their immature state, the fruit’s tannins make your mouth pucker like it will turn inside out. When Capt. John Smith encountered the fruit in the 17th century he wrote, “if it be not ripe it will drawe a man’s mouth awrie with much torment.”
Ripe wild persimmons are brownish-orange, wrinkling and almost oozing juice. If you’re not picky about what wild creatures may have been rooting around, you can gather the ones that have dropped to the ground. A common harvesting method is to spread a blanket under the tree, gently shake the branches and catch the fruits that fall. Wild persimmons do not ripen off the tree, so leave the unripe ones behind.
Turning them into pulp is a messy, but not difficult, business. Place in a colander and rinse in water to get the dirt off. Spread them out to dry a little and then use a food mill (or similar implement) to separate the seeds and skin. The pulp can then be used or frozen.
These tiny wild fruits look nothing like the persimmons at the supermarket. They are relatives, but not siblings. Native American persimmons fell out of favor when Hachiya and Fuyu persimmons found their way from Asia to American farms and markets.
The acorn-shaped Hachiya persimmon is most like the wild fruit in taste and behavior. Both must be perfectly ripe – almost overripe – to be edible.
The commercial fruits we call persimmons much of the world call kaki from the scientific name for what also are called Japanese persimmons though they actually came from China. Many of the persimmons on the American market now come from growers in California.
The other common commercial persimmon variety is the Fuyu – a non-astringent variety that can be eaten when it is hard. It looks a little like a yellowish-orange tomato and is available in most supermarkets. The Fuyu is a colorful, sweet addition to salads, but the Hachiya is preferred for cooking.
While the Asian varieties are not as sweet or complex in taste as their wild cousins, they are easier to find and handle. The natives are tiny and full of big seeds. Frozen wild persimmon pulp, however, is available online. The Hachiya is not a bad substitute.
However, if you find yourself in the woods in the southeastern quarter of the country in the late fall, keep your eyes open. Wild persimmons are worth getting to know. The answer may be right under your feet.