By Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz –
Fall is probably one of the most beloved times of year here in the Ozarks. The scorching heat of summer and irresistibly itchy bug bites are long forgotten and the days are sparkling and fresh. Oftentimes, the unexpected warmth of the fall sun weaves itself in between the bristly cool mornings and frosty nights and we are teased out into the deeper reaches of the landscape for a little adventure.
There is no doubt that fall is a great time for getting outside and wandering around in the woods. The leaves are still pretty and the busy little chickadees and nuthatches are already brightening the deep woods with their happy songs. Now is a good time to hunt for mushrooms and to take note of the locations of wild edibles for next seasons’ harvest. But best of all, fall is persimmon pickin’ time!
The Ozarks are bursting with a rich array of wild edible and medicinal plants and I daresay most of us have our favorites. But among the many delicious wild foods in these hills, wild persimmons are among my favorites.
While some foodies argue that cultivated Asian persimmons are superior to the wild varieties, I beg to differ. These city-folks have obviously never eaten a wild persimmon (Diosypros virginiana) and most likely have been lured to the dark side by the charms of the Asian persimmon’s beauty. For while the large-fruited Asian persimmons are lovely to look at – with their sleek, smooth, bright orange flesh – their flavor is no match for that of the small, shriveled, and relatively homely persimmons of the Ozarks.
Persimmon trees are not generally hard to find since they grow well in many kinds of places, from rocky dry woods to moist valleys. Most of the time, I find large stands growing happily in the shade of larger trees such as oaks. Persimmon trees have suckering roots and tend to grow in small groves or clumps. Young trees have smooth, grayish bark while mature have bark that is divided into thick, blocky squares.
The fruits of most wild persimmons come in various shades of orange and rarely exceed 2½” in diameter. The unripe fruits are hard, bitter and excessively astringent. Taking a bite of one of these babies can be quite a memorable experience. And, take it from a fool who knows; biting into a persimmon seed is about ten times as astringent as that of the unripe fruits. And interestingly enough, should you accidentally bite into either of these, your only remedy for the caustic dry feeling in the mouth is to eat the flesh of a persimmon that is completely ripe.
It is often said that persimmons need a frost in order to make the fruits palatable, but while a frost or freeze may enhance the flavor of the fruit, it does nothing to actually force the fruit to become ripe – that happens with or without a frost. The frosts do, however, seem to encourage the persimmons to release their hold upon the tree.
As persimmons ripen, their color turns from peachy-orange, to orangey-brown, to dull, purplish-brown. The best fruits are those that have become extremely soft and squishy. When persimmons fall from the tree, they retain a four-lobed sepal at the stem end of the fruit. If in doubt as to whether a persimmon is truly ripe, remember this; when you can pull off the hard sepal without any effort at all, it is ripe.
Once you have located a stand of trees, many ripe fruits will probably already have fallen on the ground. You can pick these up if you like, but we always clear these fallen fruits away by tossing them into the nearby woods. Since we don’t don’t know how long the fruits have been on the ground in an area where wild animals have likely been foraging, it just seems prudent to disperse those fruits into the woods where they can be eaten or where their seeds may sprout and extend the stand. Also, this clears the way for us to harvest fresh, clean fruit. We do this by slightly shaking the trunks of the trees. Be careful when you do this, as ripe (and sometimes not-so-ripe) fruit will rain down all around you. And because the ground has been cleared, we don’t worry about picking up a spoiled or ant-infested fruit and putting it in our bucket. Leave all hard or unripe fruits behind – they don’t ripen well off the tree.
While you are out collecting this healthful and delicious bounty of nature, please remember to only take what you know you will use. And take seriously the code of wild foragers, which is to always leave some behind since humans are not the only creatures to enjoy these bountiful gifts. As a matter of fact, there are at least 16 species of birds and mammals in the Ozarks that eat wild persimmons and for many of them, these fruits are the last great feast of the season and an important source of nutrients that can make or break their winter survival.
For most people, identifying persimmons in the wild is the easy part; it’s knowing what to do with those squishy, sticky fruits after they are gathered that stops them in their tracks. But have no fear, there is more than one way to liberate the pulp from the bitter seeds and skins.
First of all, give your fruits a quick rinse to dislodge dirt and sugars from the surface and spread them out in a single layer to dry. Once the fruit is clean, don’t waste too much time in preparing them, as they don’t stand long once ripe.
The basic idea is to press the fruit through a food mill, strainer, potato ricer or other such object with holes small enough to prevent the seeds from passing through. We have found that our two-part vegetable worked perfectly for this. A blancher is used in home processing to blanch vegetables in boiling water before freezing them. It consists of a tall 8-quart enameled pot and a smaller enamel ‘basket’ that fits inside. We used a heavy canning jar to press the persimmons through the holes in the basket, effectively separating the pulp from the seeds and skin.
After pressing the pulp, simply pack it into the containers of your choice and freeze it for use all winter long. Persimmon pulp great for baking cookies and breads. And because it is so rich and sweet, more often than not the amount needed to flavor baked goods and other recipes is comparatively small. Keep this in mind when freezing persimmon pulp and stick to 1 cup (8 oz) packages.
In Part Two, I’ll give you some great tips for baking with persimmon pulp.
© 2010 Jill Henderson
Set in the rugged heart of the Ozark mountains, A Journey of Seasons is memoir, back-to-the-land handbook and nature guide rolled into one. Henderson’s 20-years of living off the land and foraging in the wilderness shines in this cyclopedic work filled with nature notes, botanical musings, back-woods wisdom and just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor. This is one journey you don’t want to miss.
Available in the Show Me Oz Bookstore
Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill’s work has also appeared in The Permaculture Activist, The Essential Herbal, Acres USA, and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac.