Dr. Bob Gilbert – Columnist

I once read a book that described one of the main characters as persimmonious.  I do not remember the title or author but if I had to guess it was in an Agatha Christie mystery.  I have since looked for this word in various dictionaries and it is not listed. But its potential meaning has always been clear to me having once tasted an unripen Persimmon fruit.  It was bitter, sour and made your mouth pucker.  This description fits the character written about.  What adds to the curiosity about persimmons is that the name is derived from Latin and means “food of the gods.”  I just might have confused this word with parsimonious which means frugal or stingy. It is in the dictionary.  Might I have constructed by mistake a new word, persimmonious, meaning bitter or sour?  I will not have many opportunities to use this word as I do not know any bitter or sour people, stingy, yes.

There are actually two distinct kinds of persimmon plants both classified as trees.  One produces large orange fruit found occasionally in grocery stores.  This one is Diospyros (di-os-pi-ros) kaki from Japan and China.  It has been hybridized extensively so there are numerous varieties.  They are grown in warm climates of zones 8 and 9.  Large numbers are grown commercially predominately in California.  Seeds from Japan were sent to the U.S. in 1856 by Commodore Perry.  I have never noticed much difference in the taste from one variety to the other but then my choices have almost always been limited by a grocery store.

Our native persimmon is Diospyros virginiana.  It has a number of common names American Persimmon, Common Persimmon, Eastern Persimmon, Simmon, Possumwood, Possum Apples, or Sugar Plum.   It can be found growing naturally from Connecticut to Florida.  There is one reported commercial variety “Early Golden” and another seedless variety.  This tree grows with very straight trunks to a height of 66 feet with distinctive scaly bark.  Its wood is close grained and very hard.  The center or heart wood is black hence it belongs to the Ebony family.  Its early summer blooms have a slightly fragrant scent.  It is dioecious – meaning that male and female blooms are on separate trees.  However, many specimens are able to set fruit without pollination.  This is called parthenogenesis.  

The fruit is round or oval, orange-yellow when ripe, green when immature. You have to wait until it is very ripe to almost rotten otherwise it is very sour and astringent, persimmonious.  It is usually recommended that the fruit not be picked from the tree but allowed to ripen and fall to the ground.  This is actually called bletting, allowing fruit to become dead ripe to almost rotten which makes the fruit very soft.  If you are unsure, put the fruit in a plastic bag with an apple or banana, both of which produce large quantities of ethylene gas that will speed up ripening.  Commercially, this is how fruits like apples, pears, tomatoes and bananas are handled.  They are picked green, stored until ready to sell, then gassed.  

Persimmon fruit is ripe when deep orange, very soft, on the ground and when the top remnants of the bloom called calyxes are dry and crisp.  There is a fair amount of competition for the fruit as racoons, opossums, skunks, turkeys, bears, foxes and deer are found of it. You have to be quick.

The flesh of persimmons makes interesting wine, beer, pudding, bread, cakes and jam.  Dried leaves can be used to make a tea.  This tree’s leaves are  the host for the caterpillar of the pale green Luna moth. 

Our native persimmons can have numerous seeds.  There is a folk legend that says you can predict winter weather by splitting a persimmon seed lengthwise and look at the embryo. If you find an image of a spoon, that predicts a mild winter, an image of a knife indicates a hard winter or a fork indicates a medium to bad winter.

I have just read about a new cultivar “Nikita Gift” which is a cross between our native persimmons and the Japanese variety Kaki.  It is hardy to Zone 5 and is self-fertile.  It will grow up to 8 feet.  It can be found in Logee’s catalog where it states that its three-inch delicious fruit ripens in October.  I have ordered one, stay tuned. 

Persimmon Pudding is easy to make if you can find the very ripe Japanese varieties in the grocery store.  Of course, our native persimmons would be equally as good except it would take a lot of fruit to get enough flesh as the small fruit can have as many as eight seeds.

Persimmon Pudding

2 cups of persimmon flesh

2 cups of sugar

2 beaten eggs

1 ½ cups buttermilk

1 tsp baking soda 

1 ½ cups flour

1 tsp baking powder

½ tsp cinnamon

Pinch of salt

Mix. Grease 9 x 13 baking dish

Bake at 350 for about an hour until a toothpick comes clean from the center.

Dr. Bob Gilbert, now living in Franklin is cofounder of Smith Gilbert Gardens in Kennesaw Ga.

Karen Lawrence is a professional photographer of botanical subjects and wildlife is from Franklin, N.C.

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