Americans have been eating persimmons for a long, long time. Capt. John Smith of the Plymouth colony, made famous by Pocahontas, praised persimmons way back in the 1600s.
Calling them “putchamins,” he said the fruit, when ripe, was “as delicious as an apricot.” Surely Native Americans had eaten them for centuries before the captain was introduced to them.
With that pedigree, why aren’t persimmons right up there with the turkey, cranberries and pumpkin pie as a Thanksgiving tradition?
Not only are ripe persimmons sugary and delicious, but Asian varieties are so beautiful they were recently featured as centerpiece table decorations on the website Santa Barbara Chic (www.sbchic.com).
The problem has to do with impatience. Smith knew the persimmon’s delights come with an asterisk. If unripe, one bite can turn your cheeks inside out. You have to wait until the fruit is completely soft, or else. As Smith put it:
“If it be not ripe, it will draw a man’s mouth awry, with much torment.”
Decades of complaints from over-eager persimmon munchers, puckered up in self-pity, have sullied the reputation of this scrumptious natural treat. And Persimmon Dissing Syndrome is just as unfortunate in the garden as it is in the kitchen.
Native persimmons are a natural part of our local ecosystem, and the beautiful, closely related Asian types grow easily in the area. Fall leaf color for both native and Asian types can be stunning.
I grow an Asian variety, from Womack Nursery in Texas (www.womacknursery.com), specifically selected for its rainbow of red, deep orange and bright yellow autumn leaves.
But when the leaves drop, the effect is even more captivating, with fruit hanging like golden orbs from bare and graceful limbs.
Asian persimmons are less tolerant of cold than their American cousins, but they still do well in the Charlotte region. They can even tolerate being planted in a lawn, where ripe fruit, which naturally falls at some point, can land on soft turf, not splat on hard clay.
For almost two decades, I watched a dwarf Asian persimmon grow in the middle of a lawn down the street from our house in Autumnwood. It would be covered with fruit about Thanksgiving, making the nicest edible yard decoration in the neighborhood.
Sadly, this year it suffered a bad case of string-trimmer blight and may not make it. A lot of good plants die that way.
Growers in China, Japan and elsewhere in Asia have paid attention to their persimmons over the centuries. They have even bred pucker-free varieties you can eat like an apple.
The pucker-free (non-astringent) types appear to prefer warmer conditions than we have in the Carolina Piedmont, however, and they don’t deliver that sublime ripe persimmon taste nearly as well.
Native American persimmons can take the cold; they were growing here back in the time of woolly mammoths and cave bears. Partisans say they are even tastier than Asian types, but the fruit is much smaller and contains seeds.
The hard wood of American persimmon was used to make shuttles for Carolina textile mills. But with a couple of exceptions, nobody has paid much attention to breeding improved fruit varieties.
On the other hand, you can still simply go out to the woods, find a good tree and collect all you need. You’ll be competing with the birds, squirrels, deer and (of course) ’possums, but there is plenty to go around.
Lee Reich, author of “Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden,” expresses delighted wonder that, although he does practically nothing for his native persimmons, “the fruit comes raining down, more than we can eat.”
A traditional way to gather the fruit is to shake the tree gently, catching the fruits on something soft, so they don’t split open. Next, separate the pulp from the seeds and skins, making sure not to let any unripe persimmon slip in to spoil the batch.
The pulp is the key ingredient in persimmon pudding, a yummy traditional treat highly suitable for Thanksgiving dinner or any holiday feast.
For some good recipes, visit the site of the Colfax Persimmon Festival, www.persimmonpudding.com. Gene Stafford of Colfax, a small town off Interstate 40 between Greensboro and Winston-Salem, started the festival to celebrate the joys of the American persimmon. The event has been featured in Our State magazine.
Sad to say, we just lost one of my favorite wild persimmon trees, which used to grow where Rocky River Road West made a sharp dogleg before intersecting with North Tryon.
The small tree was near the road, and a bulldozer took it out during ongoing extensive development work, leaving nothing but bare dirt before I could harvest this year.
I’ve got my eye out for another one, but as cities grow, it becomes harder to find islands of the natural world where you can still discover wild fruit to shake down. It’s another good reason to make space for native plants and growing food in our gardens.
Postscripts• For the botanically minded, persimmons are genus Diospyros. The American type is D. virginiana, the Asian type D. kaki. Trees are either male or female, but sometimes they switch sex or grow a limb of the other sex. Very interesting plants!
The site I like best for information is www.nafex.org, the North American Fruit Explorers (not just persimmons, but for all fruit crops.)• Also, this year, persimmons get an added boost, since Hanukkah and Thanksgiving overlap – Thanksgivukkah, if you like, and if you don’t believe me, visit the Facebook page at www.facebook.com/Thanksgivukkah, if only to see the new version of the famous Grant Wood painting “American Gothic.”
Israel has become one of the world’s top growers and exporters of Asian persimmons. They’ve changed the name to “Sharon Fruit” (because “kaki” means something indelicate in Hebrew).
The Israelis specialize in puckerless (non-astringent) types, easy to include in salads and other dishes where you want a sweet, fruity crunch.
I’ve seen Sharon fruit for sale at Harris-Teeter in University City. The big Asian markets at Tryon Street and Sugar Creek Road often have the larger Asian/kaki persimmons, which can be used for puddings and other dishes when fully ripe, as well as for decorations.
For native persimmons, well, see you in the woods.• Finally, a friend told this story about the persimmon tree of his childhood:
“We had a very tall persimmon tree in our back yard. Its lowest branches were 10 or 12 feet off the ground, so the fruit was too high to pick when ripe, and it all just fell to the ground.
“The resulting circle of rotting persimmons, covering an area that was roughly the 30-foot diameter of the tree’s crown, attracted all manner of stinging insects. We called it ‘the bee patch.’
“When a baseball or football rolled in there, it was gone for the season. We’d fetch it only after the first frost drove the bees away.
“I don’t know why nobody thought to clear the ground of the dead fruit, which I suppose we easily could have done any day after sundown. As kids, we just thought of ‘the bee patch’ as totally off limits.
“It’s one of my enduring memories of my childhood home.”