by Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz –
Fall is a great time for getting outside and wandering around in the woods. The heat of summer is over and most of the creepy crawlies are busy doing whatever they do when the weather turns chilly, which makes fall the perfect hunting season for a rich array of wild edible and medicinal plants including mushrooms, walnuts, and the incredible, edible wild persimmon!
If you live in the eastern half of the United States you are probably familiar with wild persimmons. And while some “foodies” will argue that cultivated Asian persimmons are far superior to the wild varieties, but I beg to differ. These 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 large size and perfect orange flesh, their flavor is no match for that of the small, shriveled, and relatively homely wild persimmon.
Persimmon trees are not hard to find since they grow well in many kinds of places, including rocky dry woods and moist valleys. Most of the time, I find wild persimmons growing in the shade of mature oaks, where they often reach heights of up to forty feet. And because persimmons have suckering roots, they are often found growing in large groves or clumps. Young persimmon trees have smooth, grayish bark, but the bark on mature trees is divided into thick, blocky squares that are easy to spot from a distance.
The fruits of most wild persimmons come in various shades of mottled orange and purple and rarely exceed 2½” in diameter. The unripe fruits are hard, bitter, and very astringent. Indeed, should you mistake an almost-ripe fruit for a ripe one, the inside of your mouth will immediately feel as if you’ve just eaten an entire package of cotton balls soaked in bitter brew. And, take it from a fool who knows; persimmon seeds are about ten times more astringent than the unripe fruit, which is an exciting experience not soon forgotten!
Should you accidentally bite into an unripe fruit or seed, the only remedy for the extreme dry feeling in the mouth is to eat the flesh of a persimmon that is completely ripe. Go figure.
It is often said that persimmons need a frost in order to make the fruits ripe, but that’s not quite true. Fruits will ripen with or without a frost, as is evidenced by the few early (and ripe) fruits that fall well before the first frost. In fact, according to David Parker and Greg Reighard, Extension Agent and Extension Specialist from Clemson University, a hard frost will actually ruin the unripe fruits still on the tree. (Read their paper here).
As persimmons ripen, their color turns from peachy-orange, to orangey-brown, to a dull, purplish-brown. The uglier and more wrinkled the fruit, the riper it is! Of course, the best fruits are those that are extremely soft and squishy.
When persimmons fall from the tree, they retain the four-lobed calyx at the stem end of the fruit. If you are ever in doubt as to whether a persimmon is truly ripe, remember this: when you can pull off the calyx without any effort, the fruit is 100% ripe and ready to eat.
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 since you can’t know how long they have been on the ground, or if any wild animals have been foraging on them, it just seems prudent to leave them where they lay. We toss the fallen fruits into the woods where they can be eaten by the wild things that disperse their seeds.
Once we have cleared the ground, we sometimes lay down a sheet or tarp and shake the trees to release freshly ripened fruit. Be careful when you do this, as ripe (and sometimes not-so-ripe) fruit will rain down on your head! Leave the unripe fruits – persimmons 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 something behind. Humans are not the only creatures that enjoy the bountiful gifts of nature. At least 16 species of birds and mammals in the Ozarks 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.
Start by giving your freshly harvested fruits a quick rinse in clean water. This helps dislodge dirt and sugary juices stuck to the skin. Spread the fruits out in a single layer to dry a little bit. But don’t wait too long to start processing the fruits, they don’t hold long once ripe or damaged.
To separate the flesh from the seeds and skin, try using a food mill, strainer, potato ricer, or other such device that has holes small enough to prevent the seeds from passing through. For years, we used a two-part vegetable blanching pot, because that’s what we had. But now we use a canning food press (a tapered and perforated metal cone with a wooden pestle) and it works beautifully.
After separating the pulp from the skins and seeds, simply pack it raw into any container you like and freeze it. I personally like to use quart-size zip-to freezer bags. I just fill them with enough pulp to make a thin layer that is easy to break apart when frozen. That way, when I need a little persimmon pulp, I can just break off the amount I need and return the rest to the freezer.
Ice cube trays are also great for freezing pulp in small portions. Once the cubes are frozen solid just toss them all into a freezer bag.
Next week, I’ll talk more about how to use persimmons and pass on some great tips for using persimmon pulp to reduce the amount of fat in your baked goods!
Until then, happy pickin’!
© 2013 Jill Henderson – feel free to share, but please link back to this site. Thanks!
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. She writes for several publications, including The Permaculture Activist, The Essential Herbal, Acres USA, and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac.