Persimmon fruit close up

Ripe native persimmon fruit, up close. ©Carol Quish Photo, UConn

When thinking of fruit trees, persimmon does not immediately come to mind. We often see the large fruit of Asian or Japanese persimmon, (Diospyros kaki), in the produce section of larger supermarkets or specialty markets which are imported and need much warmer weather for trees to grow than the northeast provides. We do however, have the native American persimmon tree, (Diospyros virginiana), which will, and does grow quite happily to zones 4 to 9, two zones colder than Connecticut. American persimmon is native to the entire eastern United States. The fruit is much smaller than the Asian persimmon, but is said to be richer in taste when fully ripe. Waiting for the full ripening without the fruit getting to the rotten stage takes daily checks. Fruit can be eaten fresh, dried or made into a pudding. Fruits are very soft which probably why no one markets them. They would be impossible to ship even very short distances.

Persimmon fruit, blue sky

Unripe fruit is very astringent. If you have ever tasted alum, the resulting dry pucker of the mouth is much the same. As children, we dared the unfamiliar to eat one tempting them with “it’s good, really”, then laughing at the poor soul who believed us. Thankfully we lived to tell about it and are all still friends or accepted family. The Native Americans called them ‘dry fruit’ in the Algonquian language.

Persimmon tree

Native persimmon prefers a site in full sun, as most fruit trees do for good fruit production. It is accepting of a wide range of soil types except being in a very wet root situation. Good drainage is best, though. Trees make a good shade tree with plenty of larger, elongated leaves. They grow up to 74 feet tall and about 30 feet wide. Persimmons are dioecious trees, meaning there are male and female trees. Male trees house flowers containing pollen, the male sex part, and female trees house flowers containing the ovaries which, if pollenated and fertilized will produce fruits. If you want fruit, buy a female tree or one that you see fruit on it already. For a good fruit set, plant both a male and female tree. Occasionally, some trees will produce both male and female flowers on the same plant and be self-pollinating, but this is not always reliable. Fruits often hang on the tree late into the fall, even after the leaves have dropped making a pretty show of orange colors against the darker grey branches. The bark of a mature tree is beautiful on its own; black and corky, and richly textured.

persimmon bark, uconn plant database photo

Persimmon bark, photo UConn Plant Database

Uncommon and native fruits are ripe to be had, just look in the woods and forests of different locations to see what you can find.

Persimmon fruit

 

-Carol Quish

The native persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) grows throughout much of the eastern United States from southern Connecticut south through Florida and west as far as Kansas and Texas. This medium sized, sometimes shrubby tree can be a nice addition to the landscape and produces attractive edible fruit in the fall. While it will do best in Connecticut in the milder climate near the shore, it may thrive in a protected location further inland.   It’s not picky about the site; just about any type of soil will do, it tolerates shade (but will grow more slowly), and has minimal pruning, fertilizer or irrigation. It has few important pest and disease problems.

This is a slow-growing tree, reaching a mature height of 30 to 60 feet. It sometimes has a single trunk and sometimes stems are clumped.   The leaves are deciduous, alternate, simple and entire (non-toothed edges). The native persimmon (unlike the Oriental) is dioecious meaning there are female and male trees. Both are required for pollination and fruit production, but one male can provide a sufficient pollen source for up to 20 female trees. Pollination is by insects and wind and the flowers are used by some bees for honey production. Flowers are small and not showy and are produced from March to June depending on the location. It would lean toward June in Connecticut, the northern-most edge of its range. Berry type fruits ripen in the fall.

Persimmon fruit and leaves. J. Allen photo.

Persimmon fruit and leaves. J. Allen photo.

Persimmon fruit is about an inch in diameter. Ripe fruit is yellow to orange to red in color and may have a glaucous (white) bloom. Berries may contain zero to eight flat, brown seeds about a half inch long. Before ripening is complete, the fruit has a bitter astringent flavor. Once it’s soft it has a sweet flavor and can be used to eat fresh, dried or cooked into desserts or candy. It is sometimes fermented with hops, cornmeal, or wheat bran into a type of beer. Dried and roasted seeds have been used as a coffee substitute and the leaves have been used to make tea. The fruit is high in vitamin C. Many animals feed on persimmon fruit including song birds, skunk, raccoon, opossum, squirrels, deer, turkey, crows, rabbits, hogs and cattle. It can cause livestock to become sick. One downside of the native persimmon in the landscape is that deer will browse on it.

In traditional medicine, the inner bark and unripe fruit of the persimmon have been used to treat fever, diarrhea, and hemorrhage. Fruit extract has been used to make an indelible ink. The seeds were sometimes used as buttons during the 1800s. The wood is very hard and strong and is good for turning. The heartwood is very dark and resembles ebony but one reference states that a persimmon tree must be 100 or more years old before there is enough dark heartwood to produce a useable yield.

Our native persimmon has been introduced into Europe as an ornamental because of its hardiness, adaptability, attractive leaves and abundant fruit. It is difficult to transplant once it’s a few years old because it forms a deep taproot. In some areas of the U.S., this tree is considered a woody weed when it becomes dominant in pasturelands. For landscape use, a number of cultivars have been developed from the wild type including ‘Early Golden’, ‘John Rick’, ‘Miller’ and others. Additional common names used for native persimmon include simmon, possumwood and sugar-plum.

J. Allen