Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz
The Ozarks are filled with wonderful edibles, like sweet and sticky wild persimmons. And now that the scorching heat of summer and its itchy bug bites are a thing of the past finding and harvesting these little gems is as easy as pie!
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!
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 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. Large stands will grow happily in the shade of larger trees such as oaks. Young trees have smooth, grayish bark while the bark of mature trees is divided into thick, blocky squares. I always tell people to look for the tree with “alligator bark”.
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, leaving your entire mouth reeling with the driest most unpleasant feeling you’ve probably ever had. And take it from a fool who knows – biting into a persimmon seed is about ten times. Interestingly enough, if you accidentally bite into either of these, the only remedy for the caustic dry feeling is to eat the flesh of a completely ripe persimmon!
It is commonly believed that persimmons need a frost in order to make the fruits palatable. But that’s an old wives tale that came about because persimmons are ripe between the end of fall and the beginning of winter. And a heavy frost or freeze simply breaks the firm connection of the fruit to the tree and allows them to fall to the ground.
As persimmons ripen, their color changes. At first, they are usually bright peachy-orange, changing in time to an orangey-brown or even a 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 I generally toss all fallen fruits into the nearby woods because I don’t know how long they have been on the ground or what wild animals have been there before me. So, it just seems prudent to disperse those fruits into the woods where the wildlife can eat them, or where their seeds can sprout into new persimmon trees.
Once the ground is clear, we harvest fresh fruit from the trees either by picking those within reach or by 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. Leave all hard or unripe fruits behind – they generally don’t ripen 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. Humans are not the only creatures that enjoy these bountiful fruits. There are at least 16 species of birds and mammals in the Ozarks that eat wild persimmons – and for many of them, this is one of the last great feasts of the season 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, when you get home, give your fruits a quick – and gentle – cleaning to dislodge debris from the surface. Once clean, don’t waste any time in processing – they don’t last long, even in the refrigerator.
Don’t even think about trying to process persimmons using your hands! Try it once, and you will know why. Instead, you want to quickly separate the pulp from the seeds and skins by pressing the fruit through a food mill, strainer, or potato ricer – anything that has holes small enough to prevent the seeds from passing through will probably work.
The first time I processed persimmons at home all I had on hand was a vegetable blancher. These are 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. I used a heavy canning jar to press the persimmons through the holes in the basket, effectively separating the pulp from the seeds and skin. It worked okay but was incredibly messy.
One of the biggest problems when processing persimmons is that the pulp dries up incredibly quickly, sticking to hands, tools, and counters like glue. Nowadays, I prefer to use a large potato or vegetable ricer on a stand with a wooden pestle. I recently discovered that these devices are officially referred to as a “chinois”, but most homesteaders know what it is.
Here’s my number one trick for processing. Don’t be afraid to add a little water to the pulp in the ricer or the bowl to thin it. This makes the pulp flow more freely and unsticks it from surfaces. And here’s the really cool part. After adding water to the pulp – if you let the mix stand for 15-minutes or so, the water will separate from the pulp and can be poured off leaving you a nice thick pulp to bake with.
Once you have processed all your persimmons, simply pack the pulp into 1 cup (8 oz) servings and freeze, which is just about right for almost any purpose. Next week I’ll share a few great tips for baking with richly sweet persimmon pulp, so you don’t want to miss it.
Until then, happy harvesting!
© Jill Henderson
A Journey of Seasons
If you’ve ever wondered what life is like in the Ozarks, Henderson’s 30+-years of living off the land and foraging in the wilderness truly shines in this beautiful book. Filled with nature notes, wild foraging tips, botanical musings, homesteading, and just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor.
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.