Updated: Jan 24, 2020
One of the last gifts from our temperate wild landscape before the Winter Solstice arrives, is the incomparable Persimmon. Her fruits hang from the velvety twigs of now leafless trees like precious gems, little red-orange globes, festively donning these typically edge-dwelling trees. This leafless time, in late fall, is a great opportunity to make note of the female, fruit-bearing persimmon trees in one's area, as they are so easy to spot when laden with their distinctive, decorative orbs. It is unusual to see fruits clinging to trees as deep into the cold weather as will the Persimmon, which is a source of rich, sweet cinnamon-hinted, jelly-like fruit- commonly holding on even into the new year. Chunky, dark brown bark is another tell-tale sign of Persimmon, when it comes to identification. The native variety in eastern north america, Diospyros virginiana, is one of the ebony species of deciduous hardwoods, with characteristic heavy and dense, slowly-grown heartwood. While the fruit is notorious for it's astringent quality unless fully ripened, one can minimize the chances of a negative encounter by waiting until the temperature has dropped below freezing for at least a handful of nights, and then choosing to consume only the most squishy and gnarled specimens still hanging from the tree. While two varieties of Asian Persimmons are occasionally avaiable commercially- Fuyu, which lacks astringency altogether and can be eaten firm; and Hachiya, which is larger than even the American cultivars, but shares the same astringent quality of the native types- it is rare to find American persimmons in any kind of commercial context. To experience the unique offerings of this praiseworthy tree, our options are to plant and tend to the trees ourselves, and/or to seek them out in wilder spaces, and develop relationships with them on their terms.
Brace yourself, as conditions will likely be cold and grey. You may need to scale some broken fence at the corner of an overgrown farm field or cemetery. Cars will be roaring by, mere feet away, as you shake the rigid trunk of a forgotten tree to collect the misshapen or minuscule specimens as they fall and split and sometimes splatter. It might be messy, there may be many seeds to spit out. In truth, that astringency you've been warned about will soon be merely a familiar, almost comforting flavor note. Old hat. And putting forth the effort to commune with this ancient tree species, to taste it's untamed fruit, will certainly have nourished the soul.
Here at the farmstead we have a young, yet already fruit-bearing cultivar planted right next to our driveway, and she has reliably provided a handful of fruit (or so) for the last few years. And they are delicious, but we still make the time to walk to, or park near and glean a few fruits from our favorite wild Persimmon trees every Autumn. They've become old friends, who we look forward to visiting, even if they're fruits are not convenient- disproportionately full of seeds or lacking in terms of yield. We just enjoy checking in with them this time of year, when the days are short and we are grateful to be reminded of the experience of harvesting fresh fruit from a nearby tree. One generous Persimmon tree in particular produced the first food our daughter ever ate, on a long cold walk back in 2017. And when asked her thoughts on Persimmons now, she will tell you they are her "favorite" without hesitation.
J. Russel Smith championed perennial food production, and envisioned a regenerative approach to agriculture. In "Tree Crops" (published in 1929) he proposed persimmon as well as other resilient native fruit and nut trees as keystones for future agricultural landscapes. A persimmon cultivar named "Smith's Best," purported to be "Giboshi," an Asian variety of persimmon, was alleged to be discovered at Smith's former homesite in Virginia, and was bred into nursery stock which is currently commercially available. Pictured to the left is a fruiting "Smith's Best" Persimmon in the forage-able landscaping here at Immortal MTN. It's fruits are significantly larger than the wild north american trees, and feature characteristics of the Hachiya variety.