Stalking the wild persimmon

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This wild persimmon tree on Maryland’s Eastern Shore is heavy with fruit in late fall. / AFR photo by Bonny Wolf

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.

Persimmons are commonly used to make pudding. / AFR photo by Bonny Wolf

Persimmons are commonly used to make pudding. / AFR photo by Bonny Wolf

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.”

Wild persimmons can be gathered from the ground where they've fallen. They are then turned into pulp for cooking. / AFR photo by Bonny Wolf

Wild persimmons can be gathered from the ground where they’ve fallen and turned into pulp for cooking. / AFR photos by Bonny Wolf

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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14 Responses to Stalking the wild persimmon

  1. Lou Leikach November 8, 2013 at 8:39 am #

    Bonny,
    Reading your post this morning was very timely. The last time I tried a persimmon, I remember it being extremely sour. So much so, that I vowed to never eat that “fruit” again. But the other night I saw them in a market (Belvedere Square in Baltimore for anyone who cares) and they were advertised as “sweet”. I harumphed that, but decided to give it another chance. It was a Fuyu persimmon which you mention in your post. At this time, that one piece of fruit is still in my fridge – I haven’t had a chance to try it yet. But I saw your post this morning and it reminded me that I have a Fuyu waiting to be enjoyed. Now I can’t wait to get home and try it! Will post again to tell you my thoughts on it.
    Thanks – I really enjoy reading your thoughtful and well-researched comments on different foods.
    -Lou

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      Bonny Wolf November 8, 2013 at 10:17 am #

      Thanks for writing Lou. By all means give the persimmon another chance. The Fuyu is quite different from the wild fruit. It’s not astringent and can be eaten when hard. Actually, you can’t really cook with them. But they’re nice sliced in salads and a beautiful color. If you ever have a chance to eat the wild fruit, take it. But ONLY if the fruit is perfectly ripe. Let me know what you think of the Fuyu.

      • posey boicourt November 12, 2013 at 10:11 am #

        Here on the Eastern Shore, the persimmon fruits grow out toward the end of long slender branches, as in your picture. Fox, opposum, raccoon, deer and even my dog love them…so, it is very lucky that they can only get to the ones on the ground! They do look like tiny pumpkins and are magical after the leaves fall and one sees them bobbing up and down in wind around Halloween to Thanksgiving. The color of pulp whirled into vanilla ice cream is extraordinary and very tasty!

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          Bonny Wolf November 12, 2013 at 10:34 am #

          what a perfect image for a gray fall day!

  2. Pam November 8, 2013 at 2:47 pm #

    Hi Bony — what do you know about cultivating wild persimmons? Is this a tree that can be planted or transplanted? Are there any local sources (for paw paw too). What other great mid atlantic wild fruits are there?

  3. Pam November 8, 2013 at 2:48 pm #

    You are not Bony. You are Bonny.
    Damn my computer!

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      Bonny Wolf November 8, 2013 at 2:59 pm #

      Ah, computers have minds of their own. Both persimmons and paw paws are native to the MidAtlantic area and I’ve read about their cultivation. Check with Adkins Arboretum (www.adkinsarboretum.org/‎) about native fruit trees of the area.

  4. Frank @Memorie di Angelina November 10, 2013 at 6:01 pm #

    Fascinating! I had no idea we had native persimmons here. Too bad they fell out of favor…

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      Bonny Wolf November 11, 2013 at 5:20 am #

      They’re not uncommon in the woods throughout the Southeastern part of the country. They fell out of favor because, like many things, they’re more trouble than modern versions. They’re tiny and full of big seeds. So getting the pulp out is time consuming. I’ve found it well worth it. I freeze the pulp to use throughout the year. You also can buy the pulp frozen online.

  5. Margie Gibson November 12, 2013 at 2:44 am #

    When I was growing up, every mid November my mother and I would head out into the woods on my grandparents’ farm in central Missouri to gather bittersweet for Thanksgiving decorations. We had lots of wild persimmon trees growing in the woods as well and the velvety-soft fruits provided the perfect snack opportunity. The persimmons looked like ornaments hanging on the trees–natural Halloween and Thanksgiving decorations! I relished the honey-sweetness of those sticky fruits and loved knowing that the wild animal inhabitants of the woods were sharing their feast with me.

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      Bonny Wolf November 12, 2013 at 10:35 am #

      What a lovely description. Wild persimmons clearly bring out the poet in us all. Thanks Margie.

  6. John Allen November 16, 2015 at 8:39 am #

    I have discovered an America Persimmon tree on my property in British Columbia. It must have been planted in the past 20 years as it’s on a reclaimed riverbank. This year, for the first time, it is loaded with fruit. It’s a long way from home!

    • john May 2, 2016 at 10:17 pm #

      THAT’S REALLY NEAT TO KNOW..DO YOU HAVE MORE THAN ON TREE IN YOUR AREA