In the Garden:
Luscious native persimmons provide a traditional fall treat in desserts.
Mention the word "persimmon" and people think either of the 2- to 3-inch Asian-type found at groceries, the 1-inch native fruits, or of the most puckery fruit they've ever tasted. Of course, some people will know that the answer is "D," all of the above, but there's another option. Many of us feel that persimmons live up to the genus name, Diospyros, or "fruit of the gods." And with the fall season, we are relishing the abundance and pleasures of eating persimmons.
The American persimmon, Diospyros virginiana, has a fairly broad natural range, with the United States Department of Agriculture listing 28 states, mainly in the eastern and southeastern parts of the country, as well as along the Mississippi River valley. Hardiness zones include 5 through 8. The trees grow 35 to 60 feet tall, with a spread of 20 to 35 feet. The shiny, dark green leaves are a pointed oval and usually turn yellow in the fall. The handsome bark on older trees is thick, dark gray to brown and prominently broken into scaly, square blocks. Fairly small and insignificant, the male and female flowers are separate, sometimes on the same tree, sometimes not.
Although the hard, dark wood has some commercial uses, it is the edible berry that has established the reputation of the persimmon. Golden to brownish-orange, one to one-and-a-half inches across, topped with four tough wings (officially known as calyx lobes), the fruit usually ripens after frost starting in late September. It is a misnomer that frost is essential for ripening. There is a natural variance among trees in nature. Those in the know have learned to determine by appearance and touch. Tasting a not-quite-ripe persimmon, which makes your mouth pucker beyond anything you can imagine, is what has given them such bad press.
These fruits have long been used by native Americans as well as by European and African settlers. A traditional native American food utilized a mixture of persimmon pulp, corn meal, and ground acorns. The word "persimmon" is derived from an Algonquin dialect used by Delaware and Cree nations, including "putchamin," "pasiminan," and "pessamin." The meaning of each of these words is dried fruit, since the dried persimmon was a valuable food source.
Through the years, the quintessential use of persimmons has become to make what is referred to as a "pudding," which is actually more like a very moist, solid cake. Variations abound, mainly in the use of different combinations of spices. The sweet, moist flesh of the persimmon, after being separated from the large, flat seeds by means of a food mill, has many other uses as well, including breads, cakes, candy, cookies, drinks, and pies. For a sampling of recipes, plus information about just about every other aspect of persimmons, go to http://www.persimmonpudding.com.
Although I don't have firsthand experience, I've read that the seeds can be roasted and ground for a faux coffee or dried and used in home brewing of beer. Personally, I think it would be far better to plant the seeds in order to have more trees. Planted in pots in the fall, then left outdoors for the winter, the seeds will sprout next spring. Persimmons are rather difficult to transplant, so the newly sprouted trees should be planted where they are to grow. Of course, it will take many years for them to reach bearing age, and there is no assurance of the quality of the fruit. Another option is to buy a named cultivar, with 'Meader' considered the best. Be forewarned, the little grafted trees will require lots of tender loving care but are worth the wait.
Also referred to as Japanese persimmon, Diospyros kaki and other species bear fruit to 3 inches in diameter. Some varieties have non-astringent fruit; that is, you don't have to worry about them being perfectly ripe in order to be edible. Most Asian varieties are hardy only to Zone 7, but there are ones that supposedly grow in Zone 6, including 'Great Wall', 'Hachiya', 'Hira Tanashi', 'Ichi-Ki-Kei-Jiro', 'Izu', 'Saijo', 'Sheng', and 'Yamagaki'.
Among the best sources for 'Meader' as well as the hardier Asian varieties are Edible Landscaping, http://www.eat-it.com, Just Fruits and Exotics Nursery, http://www.justfruitsandexotics.com, and Raintree Nursery, http://www.raintreenursery.com.
Give Persimmons A Try
While Asian persimmons are readily found in grocery stores, finding native persimmons takes a bit more persistence. Farmer's markets are one possibility. In my area, local churches sometimes sell the frozen pulp as a fund raiser. Another option is to check out Local Harvest at http://www.localharvest.org. Hopefully, you can find some this fall and make some pudding or other treat that will encourage you to add persimmon trees to your yard.
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