Hi, I’m back! For the time being, I’ve decided to combine the content of the two blogs I had intended to write, making this a blog where I generally write about botany AND my experiences in nature.
For example, right now is THE time to pick persimmons!
Bundles of autumn!
I’m not talking about Diospyros kaki, the apple-sized persimmon native to China, grown throughout East Asia, and found in supermarkets, but Diospyros virginiana, the ping pong ball-sized persimmon native to forest edges of North America, from southern New York through Florida to the eastern Midwest. Here in the Charlotte area of North Carolina, I consider October to be their peak season, though I picked the first few ripe ones at the beginning of September, and I’ve seen them stay on the trees throughout November, becoming wrinkled up at the beginning of that month.
Wrinkled persimmons in November
I look forward to persimmon season all year long, and even during persimmon season, after eating one, I’m already looking forward to the next one. They really are that good! Their delicate, ephemeral flavor – floral, vanilla-custard, and slightly tangerine – is addictive. I’ve tried making persimmon cookies, and many people love persimmon pudding, which I’ve never had, but so far, to my taste, nothing has beat the flavor of the fresh fruit.
Some people only eat persimmons that have fallen on the ground; I don’t, because their skins split on impact and they can get dirty. Others prefer to eat them only after the frost freezes them, releasing more sugars, and there’s much talk about how bitter persimmons can be. Underripe persimmons can be not only bitter, but are very astringent, with a tannin called shibuol that dries out the mouth and congeals into a very unpleasant mealy substance that ruins an otherwise magical fruit.
To avoid such an experience, which might needlessly turn you off of persimmons, make sure the ones you pick are completely ripe. They should be a deep orange with a reddish cast, and squish-tender to the touch all around. If they pass those tests, try pulling them off the tree very gently. Ripe ones come off with the absolute gentlest tugging, little more than a touch; if you’re moving the twig before you feel any give, let go and plan to come back later!
Green, near-ripe, and fully ripe persimmons
Some persimmons come off along with their calyx; others come off without, leaving the calyx stuck to the tree. In itself, this has no bearing on ripeness, sweetness, or anything else I know of; it’s just a difference between individual trees.
Delicious persimmon with calyx still attached
Delicious persimmons without calyxes
Almost-ripe persimmons from a tree where fruits usually come off without the calyx. The bigger giveaways that these aren’t ripe are the paler, yellow- rather than red-orange color, and the fact that I had to pull harder than I should have to pick them.
There are more reasons than just flavor to avoid unripe persimmons. Shibuol can cause a rare but serious medical condition if ingested, reacting with stomach acid to form a bezoar – a hard concretion in the stomach that can be hazardous to health. It is mostly found in the unripe fruits, but also, to a lesser extent, in the skins:
Shibuol has anticancer properties, but that doesn’t mean you should ingest it – it would probably be better for you worked into a drug and injected into a tumor where it won’t react with your stomach acid. Crab meat and an empty stomach are reported to exacerbate the problems posed by this compound.
As disturbing as the diospyrobezoars are, mere Coca-Cola has been proven to dissolve them:
it’s claimed to work by dissolving the cellulose in the bezoar:
So peel your persimmons, and if you taste them and still get that gross mealy effect, follow your instincts and just spit it out!
Fortunately, it’s easy to peel a persimmon. They almost peel themselves! Their skins are so incredibly thin that they’re a real pain to store or even transport – you can’t stack them on top of each other or give them much of a bump, or the skins will break.
This woman has the great idea of placing them into water as soon as they’re picked to prevent them crushing each other!
My method of peeling is to gently pinch the fruit on both sides. The skin should immediately crack and begin to peel away. Once you’ve pinched the skin on one side off, just bite the whole fruit into your mouth and throw the other side’s skin away.
It’s hard to pinch both sides when one hand is taking a picture! You can see how the skin is already separating, though.
About half the volume of the fruit seems to be taken up by the large, dark brown seeds shaped like lima beans, of which there are typically eight. They are extremely hard to fully separate from the pulp by hand, e.g., for baking purposes, but so much easier when you’re just eating them. When you have a seed in your mouth surrounded by its tasty gel envelope, bite part of that envelope with your teeth and suck the gel off. Then you can spit out the clean, shiny seed. Easier done than described!
I thought I had read once that shibuol was also present in persimmon leaves and seeds, but in researching for this blog post I couldn’t find any evidence of that. Persimmon leaves have been made into a tea considered to be very healthy since time immemorial. It helps regulate weight and is rich in antioxidants and vitamin C – and, apparently, not in shibuol!
You shouldn’t eat the seeds, anyway; instead, use them to predict the weather! Country wisdom holds that if you pry open a persimmon seed, the shape inside will indicate what the coming winter will be like. If you see a spoon shape, you’ll be shoveling snow. A knife means a winter where the cold wind will cut through you like a knife, while a fork indicates pleasant weather.
This video indicates that there may be regional variations on this custom.
Persimmons around the world have been the source of other interesting legends, as befits such a delicious and attractive fruit. Some Native American legends about D. virginiana can be found here:
and there’s a Korean legend about why D. kaki can scare tigers:
Six Persimmons, the renowned painting of D. kaki by 13th century Chinese artist Muqi Fachang
D. virginiana and D. kaki aren’t the only species of persimmon. Diospyros is also the genus of ebony trees, and indeed, the heartwood of older persimmons can be very dark, like that of ebony. There is a member of Diospyros native to every continent except for Antarctica. Many have medicinal uses and edible fruits, though D. blancoi, the Mabolo found in Southeast Asia, goes by the name of ”caca de chat” for its unpleasant scent, likened to cat excreta. The taste, like the infamous durian, is apparently better than the smell!
Unripe American persimmons at sunset
Most members of the genus, including D. virginiana, seem to be dioecious, with individual plants having either male or female flowers. This means that it’s more difficult to find persimmon fruits than it is to find persimmon trees.
Persimmon trees can be a bit awkward and spreading while they’re still around eight feet tall or under, but the adult trees I’ve seen have become more cylindrical in shape. The smooth-margined leaves vary in size along the branch, with small, rounded-tipped leaves found closer to the beginning of each branch, and larger, more pointed leaves that hang down limp-wristedly towards the end of each branch. Leaves and fruits alike, but especially leaves, are usually covered in some degree of ”freckles” ranging in size from grains of sand to large spots. Though spring leaves can be nearly immaculate, spotting gets heavier and heavier throughout the year. Trees seem to basically freckle themselves into fall color, which can range from reddish to yellowish behind all the spots.
Even this young persimmon sprout in my yard displays speckled leaves in the fall.
But the most distinctive feature of the persimmon tree will be the round, bright orange fruits themselves. Unripe fruits are green to yellow to yellow-orange; almost none are still green in my area at this time.
If you don’t find persimmon fruits in your area this year, try looking for the trees when they flower in the springtime. They have small, bell-shaped, cream-colored (and sometimes freckled!) flowers with four petals and a distinctive, pleasant smell like a mix between Osmanthus fragrans flowers and olive oil. It’s easy to tell male persimmons from female when they flower – and what’s handy is you don’t even have to wait for the flowers to open!
I’ve found that males have several, smaller, thinner and longer flowers per leaf axil:
Male persimmon flower buds. Note how different the spring leaves look from the late-summer and fall leaves.
Open male flowers
Bees love persimmons!
while females tend to have one large, more square-rounded flower per leaf axil, with a much larger, more prominent calyx:
Female flower buds
Open female flower. Note the huge calyx, much larger than that of the male flower!
The bee has moved on to the female flower…
The female flower can sometimes persist in a dried, blackened form on the underside of persimmon fruits.
Unripe persimmon with flower still attached
It’s interesting to note the similar shape of persimmon flowers and blueberry flowers, considering they’re both in the order Ericales!
As with all wild foods, make absolutely sure you know what you’re about to eat BEFORE you eat it. But when you do eat it, I’m pretty sure you’re going to love the rightfully legendary American persimmon.