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Persistent Persimmon

By Audrey Stallsmith

diospyros virginiana

Possum up a 'simmon tree,
Raccoon on the ground.
Raccoon says to the possum,
Won't you shake them 'simmons down?

Folk Song

As I was adding grapefruit to my shopping cart the other day, my gaze fell on the persimmons in the next box.  I couldn't remember much about the orange, tomato-like fruits, except that possums love them and they aren't at their best until after a frost.  But, with some vague idea that I should eat whatever's in season, I scooped one up anyhow.

I haven't tried the persimmon yet, as it doesn't appear to be ripe.  But I have found out quite a bit more about its family.

Our New World variety, diospyros virginiana AKA possumwood,  produces smaller fruit than I found in the supermarket.   More plum-sized, the wild ones are--in reality--a type of berry. 

They were very popular with Native Americans as well as native animals, "persimmon" deriving from the Powhatan or Algonquian term for "dry fruit."  Besides eating the big berries fresh, the Indians also made "prunes" to help sustain them through the winter months. 

Persimmon's Latin title, diospyros, means "fruit of the gods."  Non-native settlers had to be cautioned, however, that the flavor of persimmons havested too soon is anything but divine!

As John Smith warned, "If it be not ripe it will drawe a man's mouth awrie with much torment; but when it is ripe, it is as delicious as an Apricock."    A certain William Strachey agreed that "When they are not fully ripe, they are harsh and choakie, and furre a man's mouth like allam."  That astringency can be blamed on persimmon's high concentration of tannin which abates somewhat as the fruit blets (softens). Although cold and frost do speed up the bletting process, time makes a sufficient substitute in warmer climes.

As with mulberries, persimmon trees are generally either male or female, though a few prove to be self-fertile.  They sport small, yellow, waxy and bell-shaped blossoms.  In the Language of Flowers those blooms request, "Bury me amid nature's beauties." The persimmon is a host plant for silk moths. And the tree's wood, being very hard, was valued for the production of carriage shafts, gunstocks, and etc. 

During the Civil War, the Confederacy--deprived of their usual sources of supply-- employed persimmon seeds to make coffee and as buttons.  Those seeds, somewhat large in proportion to the size of the fruits, also inspired Native American games and were sometimes known as Indian dice.

John Lawson wrote in A New Voyage to Carolina (1709) that "they have several other Plays and Games; as with the Kernels or Stones of Persimmons, which are in effect the same as our Dice, because Winning or Losing depend on which side appear uppermost, and how they happen to fall together."

Like wooly worms, the seeds can supposedly predict winter weather as well--if you cut them in half and attempt to discern silverware images in their interiors. A knife means "cutting" (cold) winter weather, the shovel-like spoon augurs lots of snow, and the fork promises a mild winter.  

Both astringent and antiseptic, persimmon treated such common maladies as diarrhea, dysentery, diphtheria, dropsy (congestive heart failure), fevers, and sexually transmitted diseases.  As indicated by the orange-ness of the skin, the fruits are also high in both Vitamin A and beta carotene.

Possumwood isn't the only American persimmon.  Diospyros texana, AKA black sapote, grows in Texas as well as Mexico.  As its name suggests, sapote begets black fruit, and a persimmon native to the Philippines (discolor, AKA velvet apple) bears red berries.  The type common to SW Asia and SE Europe, diospyros lotus (AKA date plum), may have been the languor-producing lotus mentioned in the Odyssey.   

The persimmon I discovered in the supermarket, however, originated in Japan as diospyros kakiKaki was brought to the States in the mid-1800's by Commodore Perry, and soon eclipsed its smaller American cousin.  The new Fuyu type is similar in appearance to a squat tomato.  Less astringent than its forebears, it can supposedly be eaten while still firm to the touch.  Hachiya, shaped more like a plum tomato, comes to a point on the bottom and must be very ripe to be palatable.

Because it can persist on the tree into the winter months--somewhat shriveled but still edible-- the persimmon has often been a welcome sight to hungry wild things.  Perhaps it can teach us that trying to rush results will leave us with a sour taste in our mouths, while time and patience bestow the sweetest rewards. 

Diospyros virginiana image is from The Natural History of the Rarer Lepidopterous Insects of Georgia by John Abbot,, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden.