Persimmon Pickin’ Time – Part I

American PersimmonBy 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.

Happy pickin’!

© 2010 Jill Henderson


AJOS 214x328Excerpted in part from the book:
A Journey of Seasons
A Year in the Ozarks High Country

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.


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8 responses to “Persimmon Pickin’ Time – Part I

  1. Jill, you might be able to sleuth this question for me. I’ve got lots of persimmon seeds from my gathering this fall and am planning to scatter them in an area I’d like to turn into a persimmon grove. But I’m wondering if they germinate best when they’ve been through a raccoon’s digestive system??? I don’t have time to pot them up but I’d like to give them a decent chance at life, with an ulterior motive in mind of course!

  2. Sara – not sure about that, but I get why you’re thinking it. I do know that persimmon seeds need stratification in order to germinate, so now is the time to plant them. I’m going to guess that you’ve given the seeds a good rinsing already, so my gut feeling is to recommend that you plant them thickly around a small area, covering them with just enough dirt to keep them relatively moist. Germination rates are probably quite low, considering the number of seeds each tree produces and the fact that they are also suckering plants. Good luck!!

  3. Absolutely, a good wild persimmon (Ozark or otherwise) is much better than any Japanese persimmon, and I love those too. But you are going to a lot of trouble to freeze them. Just pop them free from the calyx (the hard part covering the stem end), place them in a hard, airtight container (no plastic bags!), and pop them unwashed and unblanched into the freezer. Because my supply has been spotty over the years, I have sometimes hoarded a few this way in a very cold freezer for up to six years with great results. When you are ready to eat them, hold them for a few seconds over a cool water drip and the peel more or less slides off. Works with Japanese types too, but with not quite as good retention of flavor and they need more time to thaw. Of course, if you are going to cook with them, removing the seeds and peel first is the way to go.

    As for planting, by planting them now, a great many of them should come up by spring. But be patient. Seedlings, especially in shaded or partially shaded areas, can take a long time to reach fruit bearing age, and then many of them will be males, which only produce pollen. Also, seedlings don’t always match the parent plant in size, quality, etc. (They might be better!) Again, be patient. The fruit the first few years may not have the full quality of an old tree.
    –DH’s husband

    • Thanks for the growing and processing tips, Donna. I have never even considered doing that, but it’s a great idea. Since I almost exclusively use persimmons in foods that are cooked, I always process my persimmons before freezing – but you’ve given me a great idea. One of my biggest problems in the early half of the harvest season is the staggered ripening of the fruits. I am constantly processing lots of little batches (where I live now, I only have a few mature trees). Now, I will use your process to temporarily store the ripe ones as they are gathered, which will allow me to process all of them at one time! You just saved me a lot of kitchen time. Thanks!

  4. Like anything, there can be too much of a good thing. Eating unripe persimmon (why would you want to?) can produce phytobezoars, hard plastic-like masses in the stomach. These can cause pain, bleeding and may occasionally require surgery to remove them.

    Previous gastric surgery, diabetes and other motility disorders can predispose you to bezoars in general. Unripe persimmons contain tannin shibuol which polymerizes, forming the equivalent of a hard rubber ball that doesn’t dissolve.

    Just remember, all things in moderation and let the persimmons turn “extremely soft and squishy”, good for you and your stomach.

    See http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/gastrointestinal_disorders/bezoars_and_foreign_bodies/bezoars.html.

    • Thanks, Bob. That is very interesting information and something I did not know. It’s hard to imagine anyone eating an entire unripe persimmon, not to mention many. And now I know the mechanics behind the disturbing and unpleasant feeling an unripe persimmon causes. On the rare occasion that I taste an almost-but-not-quite-ripe persimmon by mistake, the tannins coating the interior of the mouth make swallowing difficult. Perhaps this is a a mechanism for ensuring that only the ripest seeds get distributed?

  5. This article is great. Thank you. I like how you appreciate local wildlife, although I think the raccoons are the ones who eat the fruit in my yard. Today my persimmons are ripe. The main tree in my yard is about 50 feet tall so I’m eating off the ground. These are wild Missouri trees. I don’t recognize the Japanese names on the internet. The fruit is small and mushy and ripe today. It’s available right now and unbelievably sweet, not astringent or bitter at all. I planted an orchard of peach, plum, and apple, and the only fruit left for me by the deer and squirrels is persimmons. There hasn’t been a frost so I wasn’t expecting such perfection. I know where to find more trees and may go hunting tomorrow. I want to share with my family so I want to figure out how to make cookies or bread or something else so they feel like it’s clean. FYI, this is such a slow-growing tree I’m pained by how slowly my propagation efforts are taking effect. Seeds waited a whole year to germinate. I’m collecting persimmons tomorrow and looking forward to reading your recipes!

    • Thank you so much, Greg. I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed the blog!
      You’re lucky to have an early ripening persimmon in your patch (and at least you’ll get some fruit before the squirrels and coons! lol) I took me some time to realize that persimmons have many naturally occurring variants, but that’s the beauty of nature! I have at least three separate groupings of trees on my property and each has it’s own unique characteristics in terms of fruit size, appearance and flavor. One group has classic persimmon fruits (purplish brown) that ripen very early, as yours appear to be doing, and one has fairly bright orange fruits more akin to Asian persimmons, but it doesn’t ripen until well into winter! Like you, I’ve had difficulty germinating the seed as well — sometimes it takes two years! Luckily, here in Missouri, we can get persimmon seedlings (and many other native trees) at a very reasonable cost from the George O. White nursery in Licking. I don’t know where you live, but it’s worth a look!
      Here’s the link: http://mdc.mo.gov/your-property/seedling-orders-and-planting-guide/about-missouris-state-forest-nursery

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